Gender and race in the workplace: understanding the experiences of women at work

Organisations that fail to build inclusive cultures risk being on the wrong side of history, and are poised to miss out on top talent, customers and clients.

For many business leaders, a key challenge is building a culture that attracts and retains women from all ethnic backgrounds. To succeed here, organisations must first deeply understand the thoughts, experiences and needs of the next generation of women in the workplace.

That’s why FLAIR teamed up with the Code First Girls community to research how to build a company culture where women from all ethnic backgrounds can thrive.

Here’s a snapshot of what we found out.

33% of ethnic minority women experience microaggressions at work — and some then struggle to ‘prove’ that racist behaviour has occurred

How can an individual prove systemic bias or a covert lack of equity? It’s not easy — and yet BIPOC women are often asked to do just that, fumbling their way through awkward reporting procedures.

But procedural challenges aside, there’s a greater cultural issue to overcome too. Colleagues who have never experienced racism may well assume that we live in a post-racial society, or that the issues of racism that exist “out there” aren’t a problem within their four walls.

And yet the numbers speak for themselves: 55% of Black women have experienced racial microaggressions at work, averaging out at 33% for ethnic minority women overall, and they don’t feel able to speak up.

“I resigned from my job in 2019 due to microaggressions and bullying. I was being picked on for being a woman, a black woman, a black woman who is neurodiverse. I became depressed and after being threatened by my manager and trying to go down the appropriate avenues I was told by a white woman in HR that she didn’t believe me.” — Female, 25-34, Black Caribbean

How can we help women share their experiences?

The existence of racial inequality shouldn’t be a topic of debate. And the most marginalised groups shouldn’t be responsible for educating or policing their colleagues.

At the very least, all employees should have access to clear reporting procedures, giving BIPOC colleagues the reassurance that their voices and complaints will be heard.

Making your ethnicity pay gap data and diversity statistics available is an important step towards providing objective evidence in support of women who are experiencing racism. However, providing anonymous surveys are also critical to uncovering the lived realities of women, as is taking decisive action based on the results to advance racial equity.
Organisations must validate the experiences of women, showing that they recognise their reality and open the eyes of others who’d rather not see.

29% of BIPOC women are the subject of racist jokes at work

Mimicking ethnic stereotypes, mispronouncing names on purpose — these are the sorts of racist behaviours modern-day, professional women have to deal with when they come from an ethnic minority.

“I’ve had a senior manager, when only talking to me, snap his neck and click his fingers…the stereotype black woman mannerisms… he only does it when we are on a call alone, he doesn’t speak to anyone else like that and I definitely don’t have those mannerisms so I’m just left wondering, why, why is it so important for you to do this, and it’s clearly not a joke because I’m not laughing!” — Female, 25-34, Black – Caribbean

Names are deeply personal — deserving of respect. Reducing an individual’s contribution down to a caricature will never be acceptable. And a racist joke here and there usually causes ripple effects to bigger, systematic problems of discrimination.

“Casual joking about racism always gets brushed off but always leads to gradually worse situations.” — Female, 18-24, Mixed Ethnicity

So why do we allow these behaviours to happen, whether covertly or not, in an organisation?

How can we stub out the culture of “it was just a joke”?

Allyship training can benefit many white colleagues—encouraging a company-wide zero-tolerance approach to racist jokes and role-playing.

The objective of such training is to empower all employees to raise and report on the occurrence of racist behaviour within an organisation. Too many of these events happen behind closed doors; either leaving the victim themselves to report it alone or relying on the support of others to issue a complaint on their behalf.

Together, a collective community of colleagues can shape a more inclusive culture.

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