Black women are known for performing under pressure. Pressures like getting work done despite being paid less than their counterparts, showing up during elections, and leading the charge against injustice for everyone else. In the words of Phylicia Rashad, “women are power.” Time and time again, elections in this country have been carried out by the vote of black women. We saw it in the 2016 presidential election when 94% of black women voted for Hillary Clinton and then again in 2017 when they carried out the victory for Senator Doug Jones in Alabama.
Despite those pressures, the question now is how can black women be supported in the workplace as much as they support this country politically? We wanted to answer that question so we spoke with Symone D. Sanders, CNN political commentator and strategist, who knows a thing or two about being a woman of power in her field and standing up for herself despite the pressure.
The Political Expectations Placed on Black Women
Rewind to the Golden Globes, immediately following Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award for outstanding achievement in the entertainment industry, people took to the internet to rally for her to run for president in 2020. Although some of the greatest reactions came out of that moment, there was also an almost unrealistic expectation placed on Ms. Winfrey to run. Not to mention, it was the ultimate tease. That moment proved that it has become a societal norm to count on black women to organize and turn up at the polls with little to no support in their everyday lives.
As far voting is concerned, Sanders says that is not the responsibility of black women to save everyone.
“It’s important to note that black women are simply just voting their interests. Their economic interest, their financial interest, and that results in what you see at the polls. But, it is not the job of black women to—quote unquote—go out and save everyone else. Absolutely not.”
She also believes that the way black women take charge in society is changing because they are asking for more than just thanks for organizing; they want to be included. “I think Alabama was the tipping point…up until November of 2017, I think it was just expected that ‘black women were just going to do their job.’ Black women aren’t just voting for themselves, they are literally voting for their communities.”
Access is Power
Post-Alabama, Sanders says that there is a new conversation being had about the value and the importance of black women and how the day would be different if they didn’t show up.
“I think the political and democratic apparatus has woken up to see the real value of black women and now they are doing all kinds of things to hold on to it and bring black women into the fold and black women are like, ‘We just want you to hire us, give us resources, let us lead, and get out of our way.'”
So, what do those resources and getting out of the way look like? For many women climbing the corporate ladder, and for those who are trying to stay employed while being woke, Sanders says it looks like women emboldening themselves.
How Black Women Can Access and Unlock Their Power in the Workplace
On the job, a lot of black women are faced with what Sanders refers to as the “isms.” You know: racism, sexism, and ageism. Some ways that she fuels up despite her work climate include having a line, emboldening herself, and being sure of herself.
- Have a line. – Use your line to insert or exit conversations you don’t feel like having at work. “In this political climate, everyone in their professional workplaces and spaces needs to have a line—when the cracked joke is said in your office or Pam or Becky sit down and the conversations skew somewhere and you’re uncomfortable.”
- Embolden yourself. – While there are certain conversations that are uncomfortable or tiring to have at work, Sanders says that it is imperative for black women to speak up. “When the president allegedly referred to African countries, El Salvador, and Haiti as sh–thole countries, folks were talking about that at work… Not engaging and pretending like you don’t hear it does not fix the issue. It actually exacerbates the problem. So, black women have to be emboldened in the office and engage in meaningful, respectful discourse because it’s happening anyway.”
- Know what you know for sure. – As someone who is often on the forefront of heated conversations and debates, Sanders often holds her ground because she knows what she knows for sure. Beyond her career, she says that there are two things that no one can go toe-to-toe with her on and they are Nebraska and Beyoncé.
“I’m from Nebraska and you can’t tell me nothing about Nebraska. I’m also a Beyoncé fan and you can’t tell me nothing about Beyoncé. I don’t care who you are, what setting we’re in, or where we are—if I’m in a meeting with a potential president of the United States, if we get on the topic of Nebraska and Beyoncé, I am going to feel very emboldened to speak up and push back and talk to you about that. So, black women, we need to feel the same way about Nebraska and Beyoncé as we do about all of these other things that we deal with in our workplace every single day.”
Using these three tools can help women explore their power in the workplace on their own terms. They can also help empower other women as they climb.
And for companies, Sanders encourages them to implement strategic diversity and inclusion, internal and external strategies to support women of color.
“We are currently in a moment where it is socially popular for companies, organizations, and brands to step up and step out politically and have an opinion, and that’s fine. But, not when you aren’t intentional about your engagement strategy.”
Sanders says that every company should be asking themselves:
- What specifically is your internal strategy on diversity and inclusion?
- What is your specific external strategy on elevating diverse voices—being intentional about women of color, folks who have an LGBTQ background?
From there, she says, their intentional external strategy will lend itself to their external strategy.
“So many companies and brands are out there with an external strategy and they have disgruntled employees because they literally are working in places and spaces that the company has not created an environment to have the kind of conversations that the organization’s brand is engaging in a public space,” says Sanders.
Black women continue to form powerful counter narratives every time they show up, whether it be in the workplace or in their communities. And, as they seek support, they remain undivided in their pursuit of inclusion.
If you are looking for more ways to empower yourself, join us for our annual Women of Power Summit this year in Orlando!