I’m still thinking about Claudine Gay.
I’m imagining a white man in the situation she was in: a Congressional hearing, giving legally informed answers to hours of loaded questions.
I don’t have to imagine, actually. We’ve seen countless white male corporate CEOs testify, on the hook for spreading misinformation or pollution or AI.
All of them return to their jobs and their nine-digit salaries, even after lackluster or embarrassing performances.
But the Ivy League leaders at this House Committee hearing were women. Their treatment was quite different, both in Congress and the media.
Harvard’s first Black woman president was especially hounded, first about the wording of one of her answers, then about alleged plagiarism from decades-old papers.
The difference would be shocking, but to Black women it’s actually familiar.
Dr. Kecia M. Thomas, Juanita Johnson-Bailey, and Rosemary Phelps (with a hat tip to Dr. Shelomi Gomes) call it the “Pet to Threat” phenomenon. Black women may experience a honeymoon when chosen to take on leadership roles. But often the workplace culture “scrutinizes their every move” and “leaves them unsupported in critical times,” as author Brittany Cole puts it.
That’s Claudine Gay’s story. And the story of far too many Black women professionals.
A study from Black Women Thriving quantifies the disparities. Of Black women:
66% report not feeling emotionally safe at work.
Only 33% believe that job performance is evaluated fairly.
Only 22% have participated in a mentoring program sponsored by their organization.
Only 41% trust that their coworkers will stand up for what is just.
It’s the lack of peer support that really strikes me.
A Harvard Kennedy School study found that Black women are the only group whose retention goes down the more white colleagues they have. In other words, the more white people work alongside a Black woman, the more likely she is to leave the organization.
Read that again.
I’m sure this isn’t due to deliberate malice, at least most of the time. After all, LeanIn found that “77% of white employees consider themselves allies to women of color.”
But they also found that “only 39% of white employees confront discrimination when they see it, and only 21% advocate for new opportunities for women of color.”
That’s a disparity each of us can tackle. Ask yourself: what can I do to support my Black women colleagues? What can I do to remove barriers to their success?
I’d start with Harvard Business Review’s article “Creating Psychological Safety for Black Women at Your Company”
Then check in with the Black women you work with. You may not fully understand what they are facing.
Make sure they know you stand by them. Strategize about what they need.
They’re probably still thinking about Claudine Gay too.