Jun 9, 2020 - Economy

An unequal workplace for black Americans

Different sized office chairs

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Racism has long festered in workplaces, keeping black workers out of positions of power in every single industry.

Why it matters: Unequal opportunities at work contribute to the massive wealth gap between white and black America.

The big picture: There are structural inequalities built into recruitment, hiring and promotion that keep black professionals from advancing in every sector. The number of black students graduating from colleges and business schools has been rising, but black representation in the C-suite remains abysmally low.

  • Black adults make up 10% of college grads and 8% of professionals, but just 3.2% of executives or senior-level managers and just 0.8% — or four — of Fortune 500 CEOs, according to a recent study from the Center for Talent Innovation.
  • 42% of Americans say they have witnessed or experienced racism in the workplace, per a 2019 Glassdoor survey.

What's happening: "Workplaces haven’t adapted to the multiracial workforces that we see now," says Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an adviser on the Center for Talent Innovation study.

  • Most of the people doing the hiring in corporate America are white, and often recruitment and hiring are based on who you know. "For many white people, their networks are extremely homogeneous," she says. "That presents a problem in even getting into these industries."
  • Multiple studies have shown that biases are baked into recruitment, with hiring managers demonstrating preferences for resumes that have white-sounding names.

But "hiring is just where we start," says Wingfield. Even after they are hired, workers of color, especially black workers, are often alienated by an exclusionary workplace culture.

  • Culture includes everything from what sorts of hairstyles are considered "professional" (it's typically white Western styles) to where off-site gatherings are held — for example, country clubs, which are overwhelmingly white, could feel exclusionary to workers of color, she says.

Climbing the ranks at American companies also often depends on whom you know.

  • "Advancement is built on networks and mentoring and sponsorships in ways that can easily leave black workers behind," Wingfield says. And people in positions of power typically choose to mentor and promote those who look like them.
  • In the Center for Talent Innovation study, 34% of black men said they had access to senior leaders at work, compared with 49% of white men. For black and white women, it was 30% and 40%, respectively.

What's next: One part of the problem is that these issues are rarely discussed in workplaces, experts tell Axios. "There is a real discomfort to talk about the aspects of culture that are detrimental to workers of color or black workers in particular," Wingfield says.

  • But these deep-rooted problems won't go away without uncomfortable conversations and formal reviews of the policies that determine recruitment, retention and promotion at firms, says Rashawn Ray, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland and fellow at the Brookings Institution.
  • "I don’t think there’s such a thing as too late," he says. "But it’s not enough to diversify your workforce if the people that are at the decision-making table don't have diverse perspectives."
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