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Today’s job seekers want to work for companies that genuinely value and prioritize diversity and inclusion, and they’re no longer willing to accept vague promises. Employees want to belong, to feel welcome and valued. If it sounds like a tall order to fill, it is — and it’s an even taller order to fill for African American women.

Companies across America have taken steps to prioritize diversity and inclusion (D&I), and many have ramped up those efforts in recent years. Yet despite these initiatives, African American women are still paid less than both men and white women, receive fewer promotions, and are minimally represented in corporate America — African American women and men combined comprise only eight  percent of the white-collar workforce. In addition, they encounter implicit, unconscious — and even explicit — bias on a regular basis from colleagues, supervisors and clients. 

Perhaps the starkest example of racial inequality in the workplace is the obvious scarcity of African American leaders — particularly women — in the C-suites of corporate America. The alarming facts speak for themselves: there is not a single African American female CEO currently in the Fortune 500. Only one African American woman CEO has ever led a Fortune 500 company on a permanent basis. Only one in five C-suite executives is a woman — and only one in 25 is a woman of color.

This trickles down to the workforce as well. While statistics may show an increase in “office” jobs (as opposed to service or blue-collar jobs) for African American women, reports often fail to include the degrees of both unemployment and underemployment — the underutilization of African American female workers’ skills — once they’re hired. As part of D&I initiatives, employers and human capital leaders must make a concerted effort to ensure that female African American employees have clear opportunities to be promoted to roles in which they can use their existing skills and learn new ones.

On my way to becoming the first chief diversity and inclusion officer of a major staffing company, I’ve learned that creating an inclusive workplace culture involves more than just an hour of bias training every year. It is critical for organizations to be culturally competent and have inclusive leadership teams to combat both implicit and unconscious biases. Otherwise, management and leadership tend to surround themselves with people who look like them and share their beliefs. The fact of the matter is, when C-suite leaders don’t have exposure to people of color, they are less likely to engage with or promote people of color. 

As a female African American executive, I feel responsible for educating leadership about their biases and the impact they can have on company culture. It is important for leadership to recognize that African American women are very conscious of being the only person of color in the room. We are acutely aware of when people of color are passed over for promotion, and we also notice when we are recognized and valued by management. I also encourage senior-level colleagues to mentor young employees of color early in their careers, and to ensure mentors encourage them to be their authentic selves at work. 

From a talent perspective, human capital leaders must confront the fact that African American workers often get stuck in low-level administrative and support roles with little chance for advancement. Not only does this long-standing trend not foster an inclusive work environment, it makes those workers vulnerable to losing their jobs when many of those roles become automated in the coming digital transformation. It is critical that HR leaders prioritize diversity in their talent pipeline, determine why that talent hasn’t moved forward in the organization and invest in reskilling initiatives to future-proof a diverse workforce. 

In order for D&I initiatives to be successful, they must address the issues employees face throughout their career paths, from the ground floor to the C-suite. While offering diversity or bias training courses or seminars is a good idea, organizations must commit to broad cultural changes — including putting women of color in visible leadership positions — if they want to move the needle and create a diverse and inclusive workplace that utilizes the talent, skills and potential of all employees regardless of the color of their skin.


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