Empowering Black Women in Business Means More Than Ticking a Few Boxes

It’s time to stop overlooking this key demographic. 


Empowering Black Women in Business Means More Than Ticking a Few Boxes
Photo: Getty Images/Illustration: Chloe Krammel

When the invisible woman is born and placed into her mother’s warm embrace, she doesn’t know she is invisible. At that moment, her invisibility exists only as a lingering fear in the back of her mother’s mind. Yet her mother has hopes that things will be different for her daughter than they were for her. The mother dreams her baby won’t be subjected to the injustices that she, the mother, has to face. The newborn’s only transgressions, after all, are her skin color and her gender.

Early on in her life, the invisible woman has glimpses of her invisibility, although she doesn’t quite understand what it means. It’s simply a mote of emotion that leaves her feeling out of place. It begins within her own family and the colorism that defines how they see her and, by learning through their examples, how she sees herself. “Don’t stay out in the sun too long–we don’t want you getting darker!” “We need to straighten that girl’s nappy hair!”

These messages, coupled with the stream of images and advertisements she sees every day of straight-haired and happy fair-skinned women living fantastic moments, coalesce around her into an environment that seems to value something other than what she is. Very early on, the invisible woman starts to feel as if she needs to be different if she wants to belong, if she wants to be loved. Little does she know that this is only the beginning. It is just the cusp of a lifetime of everyday indignities that will make her hunch her shoulders, hide her full lips, and use chemicals to straighten her curls.

She will try to accommodate these messages, to increase her visibility by conforming to what her environment seems to expect of her. Later on, she will always question which parts of her are genuine, and which parts emerged as an attempt to fit into a world that expects her to be something other than who she is. She will find her identity, but her true self will be fading away.

As customers, as colleagues, as human beings, Black women are the most neglected, underserved, and disregarded people in America. Black women are more often than not ignored by health care professionals, and they have a mortality rate during childbirth three to four times higher than that of non-Hispanic White women. Socioeconomic status, education, and other factors do not protect against this and other health disparities, because sexism and racism are the primary drivers. The invisible woman feels pain and is ignored and suffers from ailments that can be treated, if only medical professionals would actually see her.

Few Black women ever reach senior-level positions in corporate America, even with the highest levels of education. Over the past 40 years, only 13 percent of Black female Harvard MBAs have reached senior-most executive ranks. Thirty-five percent of college women are Black, and yet they make up only 3 percent of the top-wage workforce and are paid 39 percent less than White men and 21 percent less than White women. The invisible woman tries to shine, tries her hardest to be the best, but she becomes demoralized because her best will never be seen as good enough.

In the company where she works, perhaps your company, she is passed up time and time again for promotions and raises while being managed by people who don’t see what she could contribute–or see her at all. This person who was brought into the world with so much hope feels her own hope fading. Our public conversations about women in the workplace have mainly focused on the experiences of White women. The Black woman remains invisible. Her crucial perspectives go unheard, and we ignore why the disparities between White women and Black women–in earnings, advancement opportunities, unemployment rates, and in so many other areasĀ­–continue to exist. There are ways you can help change this. I do not need to tell you that. Those who achieve positions of power in a complex hierarchy are resistant to change. It is human nature to stick with what has worked for us in the past. But in a changing environment, there is value in rethinking our process. We no longer live in the same world we grew up in.In a changing environment, there is value in rethinking our process.

This woman who is rarely seen, heard, or supported is forced to buy from companies that barely acknowledge her existence. She is rarely shown advertisements that she can relate to. Store owners treat her with disdain, following her around their shops as if she were a criminal. And her buying power, for her and her family, is incredibly underĀ­estimated. For you, it is a missed opportunity to be a human and a smart businessperson.

What if instead of society, of you, treating her as invisible, you decided to see her, as she is? A powerful force with a different perspective; a shining beacon that illuminates all around her, driving the total Black spending power estimated to reach $1.5 trillion by 2021? What if companies specifically sought out Black women to hire for senior positions, not as a PR stunt or to tick a box, but because they understood that this untapped group of people with enormous spending power is aching to be seen and heard? What if brands sell to her in a way that is relatable to her, growing genuine customer loyalty? What if the invisible were finally, simply seen?

Is it as easy as hiring more Black women to high-power positions? Yes. That is a very good start. But then you have to not just listen, but also hear. You have to not just look, but also see. There is likely someone right now within your organization who has been overlooked. Someone whose perspective and personal experience would be a valuable asset to guide your organization through the current dynamic and quickly changing environment.

After all, how can a room full of White men and, maybe, a sprinkle of White women, along with a single invisible Black woman who is present but unseen and unheard, determine what products people of color need and want? Let us discuss ways to empathize with, even prioritize, the Black experience and understand that the Black experience isn’t the same as the White experience, but it is just as much an American experience. Accountability to the underrepresented needs to be addressed seriously as well as transparently to tackle the most persistent problems affecting all sections of society.

A shift in perception is needed. It’s hard to change, but you can do this. The hope is that one day, the invisible woman will cradle her own baby in her arms, and know that this child’s world will be different from the one she grew up in. She doesn’t think this is a goal that is very far out of reach. She can see it on the horizon. She has faith that her daughter will live a life filled with pride, purpose, and recognition. She thinks her daughter will be able to shape the future to her vision. She believes she will be seen.

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