Eight tips of how I build a safe and joyous space for Black women: Real advice from Black women leaders & considerations for attracting, retaining, and embracing Black women in the workplace.
I never planned to write a post about Black women's experience in the workplace. There is more than enough content, perspectives, and experiences out there. However, after I spent a good part of 2023 becoming friend, coach, and just a good listening ear to over a dozen professional, multi-degreed Black women looking to leave their jobs or abruptly having left without a clear plan because they just "couldn't do it anymore", I knew I had something to say.
What prompted me to tell this story was simply the multitude of collective stories of Black women who were attorneys, engineers, professors, tech developers, c-suite leaders, artists, and a host of other incredibly distinguished roles who were stating their need for a break from it all. See, this is way more than dissatisfaction with the long history of discrimination, microaggression, and implicit bias that we have been surviving through generation after generation.
"Invest in employees developing emotional intelligence, conflict resolution tools, and DEI training to understand their conditioning and the ways in which biases may manifest in the workplace to create harm." - CEO in Mental Health and Wellness
As I looked into the eyes of the last couple of women who contacted me - one of whom has been a leader in a prominent, global consulting firm and another who has been at the top of her game in the accounting field with numerous licenses in several trades, I noticed several similarities in their pedigree. I mean these women were fire! Top corporate, public sector, and community leaders and some making a significant salary compensation that would make their ancestors roll over in their graves.
But the most important similarity was what they were all lacking. They were all searching for "joy" whether or not they knew it. This is why making a salary of $250k or more wasn't cutting it anymore. It did not even matter, the absence of joy could not measure up to the dollar dollar bills, ya'll.
When you are trying to often balance the depth and heaviness of elder or child care, pursuing academic or professional success, never having a breadth to deal with the impact of the pandemic on your physical, mental, psychological, and emotional health, it leaves very little room to the realities of being gaslighted, overworked, and/or questioned sometimes on a daily basis. Then, the emotional toll of intersectional identities of gender, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic income, marital status, often exasperate how you experience workplace trauma. Notice I did not say 'if you experience', I said 'how you experience.' All the women who came to me talked about very real experiences of workplace trauma in all facets of hierarchy - from their direct reports, peer colleagues, and their supervisors. If they sat at the very top of the organizational chart, from the system itself that was never designed to serve them.
I won't spend time writing about all the recent current events that have flooded our social media timelines of Black women not feeling safe, seen, valued, included, or much less made to even feel human at work. I would suggest just Googling it.
I would say that this is a time to talk about how we move forward. After the shocking number of women who were asking and sometimes pleading to be hired into my firm, I have to say I truly believe this entrepreneurship life is not for everyone. Some women need to be in predominantly white, male spaces. This was validated when I visited my Black female pediatrician recently who is a part of a large (mostly white) hospital network. I thought to myself, "I am so glad you work here,” especially as we learn more about the realities of Black maternal and infant mortality rates.
I decided that it was time to lay out how Black women’s stories have shaped how I lead.
I have drafted eight strategies I use to create the safest and joyous space possible for Black women. Please, this is not just a blog. I wrote this as a plea to corporate America and any space that employs Black women to seriously consider how you might be introspective into how they experience your organization and how you can radically shift the culture into a space of healing, restoration, and safety.
Tip #1 - I see them.
The reason why this is Tip #1 is because this is the most important one. In some ways, all the others rest upon Tip #1. I get giddy about Black women. I realized a long time ago I can embrace diversity while still being really excited about Black women. Both can be true at the same time. When I say I 'see them', I mean I compliment an outfit, a hairstyle, a smile, their tone, their confidence, the way they lit up in the Boardroom, the way they drafted an email, their ideas, if I like it, I say it. I notice when they are not having a good day and I address it. I figure my whole firm wins, when I 'see' Black women.
Tip #2 - I validate and affirm.
Building off Tip #1, like any relationship, I don't assume they always KNOW they have done a great job so I simply let them know. I give Words of Affirmation whenever possible. For any effective leader, we know what this is. Leaders do not always have good days, but it is our job to keep our teams encouraged and pushing along. Since I understand the Black woman's experience in America, I know that a little bit of encouragement can go a long way. It is not my job to be their therapist, but I do make room for a listening ear and maybe I will suggest that they engage in some self care or see a therapist. They appreciate my transparency and support.
Tip #3 - I check in (not just on their work or performance).
Each tip is built off each other. I remember when I first entered the workplace close to 20 years ago, it was very clear to me that the unstated norm was that personal life and work life were to be kept separate. So this meant that all the new moms would sometimes gather together for lunch to chat about the surprises and woes of motherhood or anything that felt like a unique experience of being a woman, especially a Black woman in a predominantly male or white institution, were happening at the water cooler. Often, if you were the only Black woman, it means that you were just siloed and there was no conversation happening at all.
The pandemic has exposed for us that there was a significant, disproportionate impact on Black women, where they have either left or lost the most jobs. The recovery is still underway. Check out this article from the U.S. Department of Labor, Black Women's Economic Recovery Continues to Lag.
"Make it a point to differentiate between feedback that is truly about your performance and feedback that is about your character. Critiques about your work is not a critique about you as a person and does not make you less than the whole person you are." - Senior Manager, Accounting and Reporting - Mortgage Insurance
I do not shy away from the idea that the effects of the pandemic are not still very real and I try to be sensitive to the fact that my team and partners are still juggling several responsibilities and demands.
Tip #4 - I (directly) ask them what they need.
While having stated workplace policies are necessary, I know that the times in my career where I could be my best is when I had an employer literally just ask, "What do you need from me to be successful?" It meant they did not assume they knew it all. Equity means we may all need something different. While I cannot commit to meeting every need, I find that I have a lot of loyalty in simply working with Black women who can see I am trying.
"LISTEN TO BLACK WOMEN. Too many people who constantly subject Black women to microaggressions are able to continue their abuse because leaders and others who cannot understand and/or empathize with Black women and the challenges that they face often make excuses for bad behavior or immediately make it a legal thing." – Vice President, Water Consulting
Tip #5 - I listen to them for their understanding. I don't repeat myself to see if they heard me.
This is one of my favorite tips simply because I see leaders get this one wrong all the time. When I am giving instructions or delegating a task, I do my best to provide all of the information I think they need to know. As a former trainer and someone who has engaged in years of therapy, I know the importance of simply asking the person to repeat back what they heard or to interpret what I said. I can't tell you the number of times Black women have told me that they have worked for supervisors who continue to repeat themselves (unclearly), give poor direction, don't make time for check ins, talk over them when they try to repeat back what they heard, or assume they should just know what to do. Let's try flagging it and give these women a chance to state what was heard, then as a leader, you can course correct, validate, or try their idea.
"By centering Black women in the conversations, it will give the perspective necessary to grow organizations. Often our voices are not heard because even when we are speaking, it is ignored, repurposed and restated by a (frequent) white voice. It is about truly giving us a platform and truly listening to us." - Vice President, stakeholder engagement and equity
Tip #6 - I encourage and expect them to challenge me.
I will keep this short. I am a life-long learner who has never been into titles and power. I know a lot and I have accomplished a lot but I will never know it all. I surround myself with Black women smarter than me; encourage them to enlighten me; and make me uncomfortable. I am honest that I will mess up and I may disappoint them. This is integrity. This is how we all grow.
Tip #7 - I understand my sacrifice = investment in long-term community development.
In recent years, the term community development has been expounded upon. Historically, it was thought of as financial investment in communities. I realize that not every coaching conversation, every project, or every hour I invest in a Black woman will yield a financial profit. What I do understand is that if a Black woman feels inspired and supported, we can build more confident leaders out of them. When they feel equipped to lead, all of our communities prosper and we will have more vibrant cities and nations.
I simply see the long-term vision.
"Celebrate the accomplishments and innovations of Black women through increased compensation, promotions, and power in the organization." - Strategy Advisor
Tip #8 - I make time for fun and laughs.
Lastly, but certainly not to be understood as least important. My firm makes space to have fun and laugh together. In tangible ways, we make fun through culturally relevant ice breakers at the start of a meeting or maybe we just go out for lunch every now and again. I lead incredibly complex strategies and respond to all kinds of crises in our work in multiple cities, but I understand the power of connection, relationship, and pure joy are all necessary for us all to be able to pour out to our clients.
I hope that some of this enlightens and maybe challenges you. Our firm does our best to lead by example so if you are an employer who needs help with your strategy to create a more inclusive, supportive environment for Black women, you can reach us at the following or follow us here:
I believe for the Black women who read it, I see you nodding in agreement. Please continue to stay encouraged. We need you and I see you. Please continue to stay connected with us by subscribing.