Career Advancement Strategies for Women of Color in the Workplace

career leadership Oct 24, 2023
Professional Woman of Color Working

The recently released Women in the Workplace Report for 2023 by McKinsey offers a deep dive into the disparity in career advancement opportunities for women of color in the workplace.

While strides have been made for women moving into the C-Suite, women of color are still grappling with the broken rung, a systemic gap preventing them from ascending into corporate leadership at a pace equitable to their peers.

In my monthly segment on AM Northwest Morning Show, I shared some of the clear steps from my experience working with executive leaders and from the report that organizations can take to bridge this gap and advance more female leaders of color.

Create Tailored Career Development Programs:

  • The Challenge: Women of color often face barriers in the workplace that may not be prevalent for their counterparts. This can include a combination of gender and racial biases, cultural misunderstandings, or lack of representation in leadership roles.
  • The Solution: Companies with strong, diverse women's representation across the pipeline are more likely to have these programs in place. Organizations can provide more relevant tools, resources, and training by creating bespoke career development programs that acknowledge and cater to these specific challenges. This empowers women of color and enhances their progression within the company. Despite the evident need, only 24% of most companies have created a career development program with tailored content for women of color, revealing a gap in recognizing and addressing these unique barriers.

Set Up Formal Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs:

  • The Challenge: One significant obstacle for women of color is the lack of access to career guidance and exposure to influential leaders within the organization. This deprives them of valuable insights, advice, and opportunities that can propel their careers forward.
  • The Solution: By formalizing mentorship and sponsorship programs, companies can, again, bridge this gap. Our company has successfully created mentorship programs for women of color and supported the development of effective sponsorship that served to actively promote and advocate for women of color's advancement. These structured interventions created avenues for women of color to gain visibility, acquire essential skills, and navigate the corporate landscape more effectively.

Scrutinize Initiatives & Mindsets with an Intersectional Lens:

  • The Challenge: Many corporate programs aimed at inclusivity and development may not fully account for the overlapping identities and experiences women of color possess. This can lead to unintended outcomes where some groups benefit more than others, perpetuating existing disparities.
  • The Solution: By adopting an intersectional approach, companies can deeply analyze how various identities (like gender, race, class) intersect and influence experiences. This ensures that policies and programs are comprehensive, equitable, and effectively address the nuanced challenges faced by different subsets of employees, including women of color. Using tools like "reverse mentoring" and role-paying can be helpful in that regard. It's also critical to reframe the narrative to communicate how advancing women of color is not a zero-sum game to help overcome the nagging notion that if a woman of color "wins" a seat, someone else loses.  

Shift the Culture & Implement Tangible Policy Changes:

  • The Challenge: While career advancement support is needed, they won't be successful in a vacuum. The organizational culture has to shift and create space for these advancements. In addition, broad, generic policies that lack depth and specificity must change to truly make a difference in the career trajectories of women of color.
  • The Solution: Building a culture of trust and safety is foundational to ensuring career advancement programs for women of color are genuinely effective and not developed in isolation. When Black and Latina women feel secure and valued, they are more likely to engage with and benefit from advancement initiatives, fostering a symbiotic relationship between individual growth and organizational success. Also, to ensure genuine progress, organizations must draft, implement, and enforce policies that specifically cater to the advancement of women of color, including providing rewards and incentives for managers and other leaders who support these efforts. 

The recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action has left many organizations confused and even hesitant about engaging in such developmental opportunities for women of color. However, EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows has repeatedly emphasized that "the ruling does NOT address employer efforts to foster diverse and inclusive workforces or to engage the talents of all qualified workers, regardless of their background. It remains lawful for employers to implement diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility programs to ensure workers of all backgrounds are afforded equal opportunity in the workplace."

A McKinsey study on Why Inclusion Matters discovered that companies with substantial ethnic and cultural diversity have a profitability edge, outperforming their less diverse peers by up to 36%. Thus, organizations prioritizing DEI are championing a more inclusive world, helping reclaim our humanity, and smartly aligning themselves for enhanced financial success.

Recognizing this pressing need, we've served as a resource and support to hundreds of women of color, helping them to gain the confidence and clarity to advance into higher levels of leadership, from senior leadership to the C-Suite. Our program, Elevating to Lead, takes an innovative approach to career advancement. It's a proven framework explicitly designed to empower women of color to understand and overcome the unique barriers they face, define and achieve their workplace aspirations, and scale to unprecedented heights in their careers.

Reach out and discuss how we can support your organizational efforts in this area.


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