Despite advanced degrees, ambition and experience, women of color in West Michigan continue to face unique challenges when it comes to getting hired and promoted, particularly for executive leadership roles, according to a new study.
Sisters Who Lead, an affiliated organization of Grand Valley State University’s Division of Inclusion and Equity, recently released a regional workplace climate study that examines institutional behaviors that hinder women of color from rising to executive leadership or C-suite positions, or that deter them from staying at an organization.
The study includes a survey in which most respondents reported that race made it harder for them to receive a promotion, while half agreed that gender played a role in missing out on a raise or a promotion.
The study, “From Knowing to Doing Better,” offers valuable insights into regional workplace climates and the struggles for women of color, which companies can use to prepare for changing demographics.
“The world is changing, the demographic landscape of the nation is changing,” said report co-author Shannon Cohen. “(Companies) have to grapple with the diversity of their talent.”
The study follows a 2017 publication by the group that detailed barriers to career advancement for women of color. Sisters Who Lead is a regional affinity and wellness movement for women of color focused on creating data-driven solutions to foster inclusive workplace cultures. Women engaged in the group’s mission live in six West Michigan counties: Allegan, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon.
Co-authored by Cohen and Patricia VerDuin, the latest study was completed in conjunction with researchers at Calvin University and uses a systems lens to examine and address organizational culture and behaviors that make it difficult to attract, retain and promote diverse talent, especially among women of color.
With data now readily available, the researchers say it’s time for organizations and executives to start asking themselves questions such as, “Now that we know better, are we doing better? And if so, how will we measure better and hold ourselves transparently accountable to doing better?”
The previous 2017 study focused on the moral imperative for hiring and promoting diverse talent to executive or C-suite positions. The recent follow-up highlights the economic imperative for organizations to promote women of color, citing a Harvard Business Review study that predicts women of color to become the majority of the U.S workforce by 2060.
‘Big wakeup call’
The study takes a deeper look at the connection between gender and race, and institutional behaviors that make it hard for women of color to advance in the workplace. It involved community-based research that went through an Institutional Review Board process in collaboration with the Calvin University Center for Social Research. The study, which aggregated data from 92 respondents in mid-management and executive leadership positions, gave women of color an opportunity to reveal details about workplace climate and culture without jeopardizing their identities, careers or psychological safety.
Some of the key takeaways include:
• 60 percent of respondents hold a master’s or doctoral degree
• 27 percent were managers while 9.8 percent had titles of senior vice president, vice president or higher
• 80 percent expressed ambition to be promoted to the next level and want to become a top executive
• 75 percent agreed that their race made it harder to receive a promotion, and 50 percent agreed gender played a role in missing out on a raise or promotion
• 75 percent said they were often the only woman of color in the room
• 40 percent said they were likely or very likely to leave their position within two years
One barrier to advancement is the region’s referral-based hiring practices. Researchers note a direct correlation between the social capital of C-suite leaders and senior executives within an organization and the racial and gender makeup of employees.
“West Michigan does a lot of referral-based hiring,” said Cohen, a consultant, motivational speaker and emotional intelligence expert who speaks on equity and psychological safety in the workplace. “If that CEO’s proverbial rolodex looks like them, then that is who you are going to replicate in your company. CEOs and people in C-suite positions that lead to hiring have to ask themselves: ‘Who have I been to lunch with? Who is in my network?’”
That 60 percent of respondents held a master’s or doctoral degree stood out to Mel Trombley, director of leadership programs for Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
“I think that this should be a big wakeup call for organizations that women, especially women of color, are absolutely knocking it out of the park when it comes to higher education,” she said. “We (women) are capable and we have the work ethic, so organizations do not have an excuse for not promoting women.”
Lack of coaching
The study also examined access to sponsors and executive coaching for women of color. Less than a quarter of respondents had ever had a coach or a mentor. Respondents who indicated they did have a mentor, coach or sponsor said that person was most likely to be a woman.
Nearly a third of survey respondents indicated they never or rarely have informal interaction with a senior leader during work or have a substantive interaction with a senior leader outside of work.
“Career mobility is not just an issue of talent, ambition and degrees,” Cohen said. “It’s about relational capital and also being groomed for the next level.”
Author and educator Shanika Carter conducted unrelated but similar research on experiences of minorities in organizational leadership while pursuing a doctoral degree, which she compiled into a book, “To Lead or Not to Lead: Breaking the Glass Ceiling Using Lessons from Past Experiences.”
Carter, who grew up in Muskegon Heights, weaves in her own experiences at previous jobs with stories from minorities and their struggles in the workplace.
As a copywriter and author, Carter said she lacked mentors who could guide her in her career.
“I didn’t meet writers or know writing was something you could have as a career or a job,” she said. “I knew that was something I liked doing or could do, but I never had someone say, ‘Hey, you can make a living out of this.’”
People she interviewed also reported a lack of mentors and supervisors who took a real interest in them.
“We didn’t have the mentors who sought us out to get to know us,” she said. “They don’t see people in leadership that they feel they can identify with.”
In a practical application of the Sisters Who Lead study’s findings, VerDuin organized group-based virtual coaching sessions during the ongoing COVID-19 shelter-in-place order.
Access, affordability and simply not understanding how coaches or sponsors can help are some reasons women of color don’t seek them out, VerDuin said. She invited a group of Latina women to meet regularly via Zoom to discuss work, self-care, family and other concerns.
“This is a microcosm of what you can do with the data and apply it,” VerDuin said. “To our businesses and our institutions, I think this is a perfect time to reimagine the workplace. This is a reminder it doesn’t have to be perfect, you just have to give it a try.”
In addition, the study showed that many women of color experience challenges related to being the first woman or person of color in their position, which creates added psychological and emotional stress. A survey from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. refers to the state of being “onlys” as emotionally exhausting, and it is exponentially higher for women of color in senior leadership.
Issues around psychological safety keep many women of color from speaking up at work or prompt them to leave an organization. Employees have to be able to live and thrive in a community after they get off work too, Cohen said, and sometimes a lack of cultural diversity, multi-ethnic services and businesses, and diverse places of worship prevent people from feeling safe, accepted and eager to build roots in the community.
Ultimately, the goal of the study is to provide regional employers with recommendations and strategies to improve diversity, equity and inclusion, and move from “leaders seeing and engaging the data to thoughtful placemaking and action rooted in human-centered design.”
The study’s authors encourage organizations — from the human resources department to the CEO — to rethink referral-based hiring practices, reflect on their social and professional networks, and implement ways to increase talent engagement, recruitment and promotion of women of color.
The Grand Rapids Chamber offers executive diversity coaching, diversity assessments to member organizations and the Athena Leadership Forum, which creates opportunities for women to mentor and lift one another up and build relationships across their typical circles.
“Athena is a really good model of utilizing some of the directives from the Sisters Who Lead study about collecting data, increasing social capital and access to leaders, and how that can help change opportunities for women and women of color,” Trombley said. “I think this (study) is a great resource for employers because it presents data, it presents the case for why we need to promote and hire women and women of color, and it gives some how-tos.”
Organizations need adaptive leadership to stay current and relevant and attract the best talent.
“One thing this study does is it helps organizations think about system-level practices, policies and behaviors,” Cohen said. “If you are a gatekeeper for the talent of your organization, you have to think about who you have meaningful relationships with.”
Besides the undue emotional burden of being an “only,” women of color also feel isolated by Euro-centric professional development training and resources. The study notes women of color would be better served if they could choose culturally relevant experiences.
“The recommendations are very concrete, and it’s about changing the culture of an organization,” VerDuin said. “It starts with the person at the top and the leaders of the organization saying they want to do it differently.”