In 2020, many companies ramped up efforts to address systemic racism in and out of offices. Diversity hiring quotas were established, unconscious bias trainings and retention strategies were put into place and pledges were made—but has diversity, equity and inclusion in corporate America actually improved?
For(bes) The Culture set out to answer that question with our inaugural Black and Brown in Corporate America survey. We went right to the source, surveying nearly 450 Black and Brown professionals in industries ranging from marketing and communications to healthcare and banking about their first-hand experience in corporate America and to assess the state of workplace equity and inclusion.
The findings are varied: 63% of survey respondents say they’ve not been given the same opportunities as their white peers, and 61% percent don’t believe they’re being paid what they’re worth. When it comes to DEI goals, 55% say their employers aren’t transparent about progress, while 53% don’t believe they’re meeting their goals. And when just 11% of S&P 500 CEOs are people of color, it should come as no surprise that 56% of respondents say their employers’ executive ranks are not diverse.
“The Black Lives Matter movement made corporations more uncomfortable about where they really are with diversity and inclusion and I’m just hoping that that movement was not just a mouthpiece,” says John Drew, a Black man and vice president at Alliant Insurance Services. It took him nearly two decades to ascend to a senior-level role. “I’m proud of the progress, but I hoped it happened sooner,” he adds. “I would love to see this narrative change.”
Drew believes mentorship is key to moving the needle. As it turns out, so do many survey respondents. While 72% say their organizations don’t have mentorship programs, 62% have developed relationships with mentors, whether inside or outside the workplace.
In the absence of mentors, executive sponsors—whether white or a fellow person of color, who can advocate for and amplify professional accomplishments—can help, says Anthony Reyes, a Black man who works at a software company in northern Virginia. He suggests forming employee resource groups to help voice and elevate collective frustrations in the office.
Career development programs can also help, and 56% of respondents say their workplaces offer such initiatives. Perhaps more importantly, 65% say they are accessible to them.
“If we don’t speak out, it might be assumed we’re content with the current situation,” says Reyes.
Speaking out has helped Chableau Ford, a Black woman and an IRB administrator at a Savannah, Georgia, hospital, earn seven promotions in 18 years. “If you’re not happy, the only person who can change that is you,” she says.
Something my mom told me is that when you decide who you’re going to date and fall in love with, just make sure they love you just a little bit more. Same thing goes when you’re looking for career opportunities.
Sharon Smith-Akinsanya—the CEO of diversity, equity and inclusion marketing firm Rae Mackenzie Group, author of the forthcoming book Colorfull: Competitive Strategies to Attract and Retain Top Talent of Color and founder of the People of Color Careers Social Hiring Network—believes 2021 will be the year professionals of color capitalize on corporate discomfort. “At the top of 2021, everybody’s scared to death about what they are going to do and say in light of all of these pledges that they’ve made,” she says.
“But if you’re not hearing about it, they’re not being about it,” Smith-Akinsanya adds, noting that such silence may indicate it’s time to leave. Just 19% of survey respondents are extremely satisfied with their current employer. When asked about recruitment and hiring strategies, opportunities for promotion and DEI initiatives, a dismal 12%, 11% and 9%, respectively, say the same.
Smith-Akinsanya has wise words for those who haven’t yet realized their power. “Black and Brown employees are in the catbird seat,” she says. “[Companies are thinking], ‘what are we going to do to maintain our competitive edge,’ because they can’t have it unless they are competing hard for top talent of color and unless they are doing a really good job around equity. So Black and Brown professionals have the floor.”
That power can be daunting. “There’s a pressure,” says Asia Williams, a Black and Japanese woman who works in real estate. “I am the only Black person in our corporate office, so I feel that I have an obligation to represent. I would hate to speak up and then be punished and then there wouldn’t be opportunities for others.” Williams, who also often feels nervous wearing natural hairstyles like twists in the office, is not alone: 36% of survey respondents are not comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work.
For employees on work visas, it can be especially difficult to speak up. “For my first job, I was there on a student visa, and my boss started being a monster when she sponsored my H1B visa,” says Goutham Ganta, a South Asian programmer working on clinical trials for cancer. His current employer, however, helped him secure both a job transfer to the U.K. and a promotion. “It’s very nice to be at a place where they feel like they really want you there,” he says.
“Something my mom told me is that when you decide who you’re going to date and fall in love with, just make sure they love you just a little bit more,” says Smith-Akinsanya. “Same thing goes when you’re looking for career opportunities.”
As is the case with most relationships, Smith-Akinsanya acknowledges that those Black and Brown professionals have with their workplaces can be complicated, and sometimes, they’re not a fit. The best way to find out: Ask questions, she says, and above all, trust your gut.
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