For many workers, especially from marginalized communities, the option to work from home during the pandemic has been more than a matter of preference. One 2021 poll found 97% of Black employees are concerned about returning to work environments where microaggressions are commonplace.
These everyday experiences of racism have lasting health impacts, especially for Black women who experience discrimination across racial and gender lines. Black women, researchers say, face increased health risks due to chronic stress from discrimination, and also because biased health professionals don't take their concerns seriously.
"Where Black women experience racism more than anywhere else is at work," says Angelica Geter, chief strategy officer of the Black Women's Health Imperative, a nonprofit that uses the scientific health impacts of racism to guide organizational change.
Today's battle between employees and bosses over returning to offices comes after the racial justice protests of 2020 and corporate America's $50 billion in commitments to improve their workplace diversity, equity and inclusion. BWHI wants to make sure those dollars go toward real change by rebuilding workplaces that meaningfully support Black women.
When executives came to BWHI for guidance amid racial justice protests, "many said they had no idea racism was impacting Black and Brown people in this country, that the injustices were still happening in 2020, or the mental health effect of it all," Geter says.
Their lack of awareness showed "executive leaders don't understand the connection" between microaggressions, health and productivity. But getting executive leaders, who are disproportionately white and male, to commit to investing in DEI changes is a crucial piece to shifting workplace culture.
"Unless a Black woman chooses to do so and does it with full autonomy and full support of executive leadership, it's not our responsibility to fix racism," Geter says. "It's the responsibility of executive leaders who can change policies and practices of work culture to really shift the narrative."
Leader response to 2020 protests also indicated that conventional DEI efforts had been highly ineffective.
"For us, it meant we needed to create something that was rooted in science and focused on systemic change," Geter says.
BWHI brought together health professionals, business executives and community leaders to create a three-part workplace equity initiative, which launched to a pilot group in September 2021.
The first piece is placing employers within a corporate equity index, which scores them based on current policies and practices and how they impact the health of employees, Geter explains.
Next is developing corporate fairness training specific to each employer, aimed at "shifting workplace culture" to acknowledge and address how bias is built into the work environment and processes, Geter says.
Finally, the equity initiative provides an anti-racism wellness toolkit for Black women with guidance on how to set boundaries at work, tap health resources and find other ways they can take care of themselves while navigating microaggressions in the workplace.
It can't be overstated that having more Black women in positions of leadership could lead to more supportive and inclusive workplaces. Meaningful change happens when marginalized workers have a seat at the table where decisions are being made, Geter says.
But as it stands, Black women are glaringly underrepresented: Just two Black women — Roz Brewer from Walgreens Boots Alliance and Thasunda Brown Duckett from TIAA — serve as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
Organizations can't rely on one or a few individuals either. Speaking from experience, Geter says that being the only Black woman in the room, "the weight and pressure is placed on your shoulders to be a representative for all Black and Brown people generally. That's highly stressful."
So, it's essential that executive leaders look at their hiring practices and put in real efforts to increase their diversity intersectionally across race and gender lines.
Employers must also pay people equitably. Despite federal legislation banning pay discrimination, employers practices continue to drive the wage gap where Black women are paid only $0.63 for every $1 paid to a non-Hispanic white man. And because Black women have the biggest student loan burdens, Geter adds, employers should offer student loan repayment options as an employee benefit.
Ultimately, Geter says employers must invest in meaningful retention of their underrepresented employees. "What will you do to make sure Black women stay?" she says. The opportunities are endless: mentorship, sponsorship, stretch assignments, paths to promotion, affinity groups, a safe way to report discrimination and practices to hold transgressors accountable.
All are tools that can help employers step into the "new definition of what it means to be diverse, equitable and inclusive," Geter says.