Inspired by my manager: Why we need more Black women at the top

Just like me, my manager is a Black woman, and it is great. There is a feeling of familiarity that has allowed us to build rapport candidly and it has been a unique experience. It is refreshing having such an authentic working relationship.

I can be open with my manager, from every day chit chat about where we go to get our hair done, whilst wearing our head wraps over another Google Meets call, to the more meaningful conversations about Black excellence and general everyday pressures. At times I laugh so loudly during our weekly catch ups, members of my family peak their heads into my room to find out what is so funny.

Leona Awoyele with her Black female manager Mo on Google Meet
Leona Awoyele and her manager on Google Meet

I feel inspired when I talk to my manager; she is a great role model. She reminds me that I, too, can, one day, have that senior role. She is my cheerleader and mentor. Yet, statistics from a recent Business in the Community report found that Black people still only hold just 1.5% of the 3.9 million leadership positions across the UK’s public and private sectors.

According to diversity and inclusion consultant, Hayley Bennett, Black women continue to face challenges in the workplace which contributes to this lack of progression. “Black women are both hyper visible yet invisible in the workplace. You’re under a microscope. So any mistake you make is really amplified, but at the same time people can completely overlook you for that promotion. Black women’s successes, skills and abilities aren’t recognised in a fair way, which show that racism, discrimination and sexism is still really prevalent.”

In fact, a study conducted by McKinsey & Company found that Black women, in particular, compared to their colleagues of other ethnicities, continue to have worse experiences at work. According to the report, Black women face a wider range of microaggressions in the workplace, from having their judgment questioned to hearing demeaning remarks about themselves or other Black women.

Barbara Ojei Agwaziam and Leonie Mills, the founders of A Touch of Colour, also recognise this, explaining that there are a lot of unhelpful stereotypes associated with Black women from the media. “People project these unhelpful stereotypes onto you; a lot of the time it’s unintentional, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not harmful.”

Genuine, authentic representation

My manager’s achievement shouldn’t go unrecognised but the challenges faced by Black women in the workplace only emphasises why we do need to have more Black women in senior positions. Without genuine, authentic representation, it is unfortunate that there is only so far Black women can go.

Having genuine representation in organisations will result in a more engaged workforce, where Black women can feel valued, resulting in organisations being able to retain the best people. Statistics show that Black women are very ambitious. McKinsey & Company found that 80% of Black women who participated in their study wanted to be promoted, compared to just 68% of white women. Organisations need to do better in supporting this ambition. As stated by Hayley, “Black women can be huge assets to an organisation, both as a role model and leader. More Gen Z are looking at companies’ websites to get an idea of the workforce – representation, and not just at entry level, is important.”

Michelle, who works as a HR and Finance Manager, talks positively about her working relationship with her previous line manager who was also a Black woman:

“Before I joined the organisation I did my research and saw that my line manager would be a Black woman. I have never been managed by a Black woman before and when I saw this I was excited. And because she was so ambitious, I fed off her energy. I would say 100%, yes, that seeing a Black woman in a senior role pushed me and gave me more motivation. It helped me with my promotion and I now have a mentor. I felt inspired.”

Tanesha, a specialist community public health nurse, also agreed that having a Black woman as a manager has had a positive impact on her working relationship and her role:

“You have that unspoken acknowledgement and awareness that, as a Black woman, you will have a different experience in the working world compared to others. It was inspiring to see my manager in a higher position. She didn’t just teach me the curriculum, she went out of her way to give me some general life advice too and was always pushing me to do better. It was more than a working relationship, it felt like she really cared about me. I don’t think I would have had that same relationship with a manager who wasn’t Black”

81% of Black professionals say it’s important to see other Black professionals in positions of leadership, yet, the statistics still show this is not the case. So what exactly do organisations need to be doing to ensure this?

What needs to be done to get more Black women in leadership positions?

A Touch of Colour founders Leonie and Barbara explain that organisations need to commit to a clear strategy and invest money in bringing experts in to implement tangible change. “It is important to support the work of informal networks, but organisations should not expect Black women to do all the hard work.”

Hayley explains that organisations also need to be honest in recognising that there is inequity and bias within processes and practices that relate into progression and also recruitment. “Racism is really overlooked in companies. Companies need to be able to properly address race.”

Hayley, continues, explaining that inclusive leadership should be the norm in all workplaces. “Inclusive leadership is about being really intentional and conscious about diversity, equity and inclusion as a leader. It should be a prerequisite of actually getting a leadership position.

It should be something that is in the forefront of a leader’s mind, not something that should be taught. Leaders should be able to adapt their approach, to understand the needs of people from diverse backgrounds. They should be able to recognize the fact that inequity and bias is at play and then put things in place to rectify that.”

Leaders can establish effective talent programmes to support Black women in their organisations. Hayley explains that whilst they can create opportunities to motivate Black women, it is also important to make sure that these talent programmes are not “colour blind”.

“A lot of organizations will have initiatives that are aimed at getting more women in senior positions but they are not very intersectional. They do not recognise the additional challenges faced by Black women. For example, women are often told to be more assertive, but if you’re a Black woman by doing that you’re labeled as aggressive or intimidating. So it’s about recognising that.”

The Solaris Leadership Development Programme, established by Yetunde Hofmann, a portfolio non-executive director and speaker, seeks to do this. For Hofmann, the Solaris Leadership Development Programme is necessary.

“I wanted to design a programme that built on the talent and intellect Black women already have, to enable them to swap perspectives, transfer ideas on topics that are relevant for today and tomorrow’s business world, whilst enabling them to establish lifelong friendships and support which in turn will have them to be best placed to give back to other Black women and those in the earlier stages of their careers.”

Senior leaders should also be active in their approach to support and uplift Black women in the workplace, and it should come from a genuine place, as opposed to a tick-box activity which could result in tokenism.

According to research conducted by Business in the Community, 31% of Black employees want a sponsor, compared to 12% of white employees. Therefore leaders should actively sponsor their Black talent. Hayley reminds us that sponsorship is absolutely essential to enter the top of organisations. “Because of barriers faced by Black people, the extra support is needed, however, if you don’t have Black women leaders, you’re less likely to have a Black woman as a sponsor.”

Mentoring is an alternative to having a sponsor, however, it does have less benefits than if you’re being sponsored by a decision maker. Nonetheless, mentoring can still provide that support network for Black women. Mentors can empower you and equip you to have the tools for dealing with those barriers.

I am grateful for the great working relationship I have with my line manager, but for Black women in the workplace, there is still a long way to go. For me, I want to see more Black women exceed and progress in their careers so that we can continue to smash the glass ceiling and create opportunities for each other in the hope that I too will, one day, secure that senior position in an organisation with confidence and ease.

Leona Awoyele, freelance writer

Leona Awoyele

Leona Awoyele is a freelance writer and panel facilitator, passionate about education, outreach and uplifting young people. She currently works in Learning and Development in the Civil Service.

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