Black businesswomen, Black History Month

Black Women In Leadership Is Still A Slippery Slope: Here’s Why

Black women are still struggling in the workplace.

In a new report, the Washington Area Women’s Foundation has “observed a disconcerting pattern where Black women leaders are vacating their roles” in the nonprofit sector. The data was collected after analyzing Black women’s experiences and innovative solutions to offset the “mounting barriers and challenges to their leadership.”

The Washington Area Women’s Foundation listened to 32 presidents, CEOs, and executive directors. Of the group, 90% of respondents said that they experienced “detrimental effects on their health and well-being,” such as chronic stress, fatigue, elevated blood pressure, and mental health concerns. Almost 70% of respondents “agreed or strongly agreed” that the state of Black women’s leadership has been vulnerable in recent years.

On behalf of the foundation, President and CEO Tamara Wilds Lawson wrote that Black women’s “words call us to take collective responsibility for ensuring Black women and Black gender-expansive leaders have the resources and support they deserve to thrive in this sector which relies so heavily on their valuable labor.”

Throughout the global pandemic and public health crisis, Black women have been elevated into senior leadership roles, especially in the healthcare and social services sector. Amid a racial reckoning, Black women leaders have even been hired with the “expectation of addressing organizational deficiencies that their predecessors were unable to overcome without added support or resources.”

Based on the data, the foundation determined an underlying issue for such a shaky infrastructure. Black women expressed the “fundamental absence of trust in their leadership” across fundraising, board engagement, staff management, and wellness policies. The women cited the lack of mentorship, community, support networks, and opportunities to express vulnerability without their leadership being undermined.

For example, the report noted that the “current D.C. public and nonprofit sector environment produces a scarcity mindset,” discouraging Black woman-led organizations from shying away from working in collaborative spaces.

After hearing from the Black women, the foundation outlined specific ideas to provide Black women and Black gender-expansive leaders with the support, resources, and infrastructure they need to thrive as they lead. 

A study by McKinsey & Co. found that women of color significantly lag behind their peers’ progress, including in representation in leadership positions. 

In response, the women in the foundation’s study envision a space “curated and convened for and by Black women, not others who do not share the same experiences.” Ideas included rejuvenating retreats, cohort leadership development programs, regular conventions and events, and learning institutes for graduate-level programs tailored to Black women leaders.

According to Sucheta Misra, vice president of DE&I at North Highland consulting company, women have difficulty showing up authentically in their leadership styles. In turn, women tend to code-switch to fit into the corporate mold.

“This issue becomes exacerbated for women of color because they see so few women of color in leadership positions across the board, and therefore, they don’t have many in-person or even figures in media to look to as leadership models,” Misra said.

Furthermore, the foundation discussed Black women leaders’ challenges with accessing adequate funding, inadequate board governance, and persistent underpayment and undervaluation. The report suggested training for funders and philanthropic leaders and establishing an unrestricted general fund to support Black women leaders.

“Black leaders call for an urgency to identify and dismantle systemic disparities within the public and nonprofit sectors to improve their ability to create positive and meaningful change so that they can not only lead but thrive. Let’s follow their lead,” the report concluded.