New research from Catalyst is shedding light on the intersectionality of racism in the workplace. Half of women from marginalized ethnic and racial groups report experiencing racism at their present job. But for dark-skinned women, that figure jumps to almost 70 percent. And for queer and trans women of color? It’s 63 and 67 percent, respectively. TriplePundit spoke with Harvard MBA and author Zee Clarke about how colorism, texturism and racism in general are harming women in the workplace — and what can be done about it.
“Basically those that have a darker skin tone and features — whether it's our noses or tighter curls in our hair — people that have darker skin tones experience more discrimination,” Clarke explained. In the Catalyst study in particular, "the range of discrimination for those with lighter skin tones was that 34 percent of them experienced racism," she said.
That’s far lower than the rate of discrimination experienced by darker-skinned women and lower than the average for women from across all marginalized ethnic and racial groups. Clarke broke down one reason that could be, as it relates to racism in general. “In my book, 'Black People Breathe,' I talk about what they call the theory of non-prototypicality which is when we fall outside of the prototype,” she said, explaining that non-prototypicality leads to invisibility. “I actually wrote a LinkedIn newsletter article called 'The Invisible Woman.' Basically, when we are in the workplace, we often feel like we are not seen or heard.”
But this theory could also explain why lighter-skinned women report less racism in the workplace as they are that much closer to the expected prototype. “When you get to the darker skin tones, it’s as high as 70 percent — that's colorism,” she said.
The career repercussions of racism, colorism and texturism at work
Racism, colorism and texturism don’t just hurt women’s happiness, mental health and general well-being — they have profound effects on women’s careers as well. “So how this manifested? In the study that I describe in my book, it’s that when Black women say something in a meeting, people will remember what was said, but they wouldn’t remember that the Black woman said it,” Clarke explained. “But when a white man says something, they remember what was said and they give the attribution. People know that ‘Bob’ said X. That obviously limits our ability to build a personal brand if we are invisible.”
“Another big issue is just access — access to upward mobility,” Clarke continued, describing the concrete ceiling that women of color face. “The glass ceiling can be broken, but the concrete ceiling feels like it can’t be broken for a number of reasons."
One of those is access to sponsorship. In particular, Clarke pointed to a 2022 Mckinsey study — which showed that Black managers are 65 percent more likely to progress in their careers if they have a sponsor, yet only 5 percent of up-and-coming Black employees have one, significantly less than their white counterparts. "When you have a sponsor, you’re going to get promoted,” she explained.
Unfortunately, non-prototypicality plays a role here, too. Women of color have little chance of sponsorship considering that C-suite management is dominated by white males who overwhelmingly take those most like themselves under their wings.
Micro-aggressions are macro-aggressions
There is little if any distinction between micro-aggressions and outright discrimination, Clarke said. “What's called micro-aggressions actually just becomes really macro and impactful.” She gave the example of a friend who was labeled "not a team player" in her performance review because she dodged an intrusive manager who was trying to touch her hair.
Natural Black hair is subject to a lot of unwanted attention and discrimination — from the uncouthness of those who can’t keep their hands to themselves, to being targeted by security and even state-sanctioned discrimination in the workplace.
“We all know that the Crown Act did not pass,” Clarke pointed out. “Which is that it's currently legal in the United States for a Black person to be rejected for a job specifically because of our hair. Is this a micro-aggression or outright discrimination? I’d say the hiring manager might say, ‘I wasn’t aware of it, it was unintentional.’ So then that might get characterized as a micro-aggression, according to the dictionary, but I would call that outright discrimination because we did not get a job and it's legal to do that.”
What can leaders do?
Clarke gave 3p a rundown of ways that management can combat racism in the workplace, starting with: “Amplify our voices!”
“It's so important for allies to use your privilege to amplify Black voices. What does that mean? I mentioned earlier that we often tend to be invisible, that people don’t attribute any of our work or our thoughts to us, so it's hard to build our personal brand,” she explained further. “So I would say, give Black people opportunities for visibility. Whether it is speaking in front of big teams, whether it’s special high-visibility projects. And also mention us when we are not in the room. Highlight our wins with key leaders and cross-functional teams. Help us build our personal brand, because we are invisible.”
Clarke also mentioned how important it is for leadership to create an environment that is conducive to all sorts of backgrounds and viewpoints. “The Catalyst study that I referred to, they found that curiosity was a key component to doing that. And how do you demonstrate curiosity? I’d say, ask for our opinions. And actually, listen to them.”
Image credit: RODNAE Productions / Pexels
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.