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African American women have endured workplace challenges and indignities — from struggling with racial and gender biases to earning lower salaries than white men (39% less) and white women (21% less) — for decades. Now, they’re facing a new and growing challenge as automation and AI threaten to upend work as we know it, leaving women of color particularly vulnerable to losing their jobs. Employers, HR managers and governments must act now to help female African American workers become “automation-resistant.”

One reason Black women are especially at risk of losing their jobs to automation is that racial, gender and other biases have often kept them disproportionally locked into lower-level jobs or administrative and support roles. Because those types of jobs are often rote, task-oriented positions, they are more likely to be automated than other types of work. Since 56% of African American workers — compared to 43% of all U.S. workers — are in support roles and administrative positions, if automation eliminates those roles, millions of African American workers will be displaced.

Ensuring that African Americans remain in the workforce is not only crucial for their own success, but also for the nation’s economy. African Americans have $1.3 trillion of purchasing power that would be lost if their jobs were automated and they were left unemployed. While the damage this would cause to the economy is great, the loss of African American workers would also diminish the benefits of a highly diverse workforce. This is why it is imperative that employers who value diversity and inclusion create and begin implementing proactive plans to help vulnerable workers move out of support and administrative roles and into managerial positions that rely on complex, inherently human “soft skills” and are less likely to be automated than task-oriented roles. 

As part of such a plan, employers should:

1. Reskill

Learning new skills and building upon existing ones is no longer optional; it’s essential. As automation and AI become integral to the workforce, jobs based on rote tasks will become endangered, if not obsolete. Employees who can perform roles and tasks that cannot be done better and less expensively by automation will be in demand, earn higher salaries, and be less likely to lose their jobs. The role of a personal assistant who spends much of her time typing, filing and answering phones may be easy to automate. But if that assistant is given opportunities by her company to learn new and more advanced skills — such as negotiation, drafting documents, participating in client meetings and managing departments — she will stand a better chance of keeping her job and advancing in her career.

2. Offer Sponsorship Programs

Sponsorship programs are not just nice to have; they’re critical for African American women in the workforce. Sponsors have a vested interest in their protégés and use their professional networks, expertise and other resources to help those they sponsor advance in an organization. While all women can benefit from having a sponsor, it is vital that Black women, who are less likely to interact with and receive support from senior leaders, have an ally who will be proactive about helping them make the connections and decisions necessary to advance at work.

3. Offer Training And Mentorship Programs

In addition to reskilling, women of color can benefit greatly by workplace training sessions and mentorships. Though sponsors are generally senior-level or executive employees who use their influence to directly help an employee advance in a company, mentors are often experienced colleagues who may have a bit more seniority and can share skills, techniques and the “unwritten” rules of the workplace. They can also serve as sounding boards, giving feedback and advice based on their own experience and the mentee’s goals. Mentoring is crucial to ensuring that Black women who have had successful careers can help the next generation of women do the same, and that success and progress doesn’t just stop with them. Training programs — ongoing, occasional, weekly or monthly classes or workshops — can be invaluable, whether they focus on specific skills or soft, less definable skills such as creativity, empathy and emotional intelligence.

While supporting African American female workers is important to their success as employees, it’s also critical for the success of companies. Studies have shown that companies with ethnic diversity perform 33% better financially than those without, because their diversity helps attract top talent and provides a wider range of ideas to teams. Without top talent, no company can thrive. Clearly, supporting Black women in the workplace and prioritizing diversity and inclusion at all levels should be an ongoing organizational initiative for every reason, not the least of which is to protect and retain talent whose careers will be vulnerable to the dramatic changes surely coming with digital transformation.


Audra Jenkins is the first Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer of a staffing company, Randstad Sourceright.