Given the challenges we’ve been facing, my mood is tempered as we head toward the end of Black History Month. For me, this past month has been a reminder that achieving racial justice and equality with fierce urgency has got to be the goal. That’s why “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity,” the theme chosen for this month by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, has resonated so much. Because to fully address the Black achievement gap, we need to understand the Black family.
For corporate leaders, this starts with understanding your Black employees. Reuters recently reported a surge in companies pledging to hire more Black employees. It’s a start, but efforts to increase diversity numbers fall flat when those you hire don’t feel empowered to use their voices. Here’s the truth: We don’t feel empowered. I’m not the exception. I’m the rule. Hear me.
My young daughter overheard me once on a work call. She asked, “Mommy, why were you using that funny voice on the phone?” I replied that my work and home voice are different. Thankfully, she didn’t push further. I wasn’t ready to address “code switching,” a common technique among Blacks where we adjust our style of speech to make others feel comfortable. She’d learn about this soon enough.
Being Black in a mostly white workforce is stressful. We manage our emotions differently. We push back…a little. We express negative emotions strategically and only with colleagues with whom we’ve built trust. We’re overly deferential, to avoid being labeled angry or difficult to work with. We don’t open up about ourselves for fear of becoming more unrelatable.
Here’s an example. Networking events are common in business. These are challenging for me because of the small talk. A topic that comes up a lot is sending kids to college—529 funds, the application process, tuition cost. I was surprised by how many of my peers stress about paying for it. I hoped I could pay for my children’s college, but it wasn’t a weight I carried. I’d do the best I can. As a Black mother, I worry about my Black son getting through a routine traffic violation without injury. This is what keeps me awake at night. How do I bring this up at a work event?
Bridging the inclusion gap is about more than adding color to your workforce. Leaders must get to know their Black employees, which means socializing with us. Meet us in our communities, read our stories, ask us about our challenges. This is how you understand the Black experience. And once you’ve built that understanding, you’ll be better able to create programs that move the inclusion needle.
What are the right programs for businesses to focus on? Here are three: Closing the racial pay gap, giving paid family leave, and reducing college debt.
Close the racial pay gap
Recent Census Bureau data shows that across all races, women earned 82¢ for every $1 earned by men. Unsurprisingly, this gap is larger for women of color.
The gap between college-educated white and Black employees also increased between 2000 and 2018. And on average, Black women earn 61¢ for every dollar a white male earns. So over a 40-year career, the average Black woman will make $946,120 less than her white male counterpart. This is disconcerting, especially considering our role in the family. An analysis found that 67.5% of Black mothers were the primary or sole breadwinners for their families, compared with 37% of white mothers. For the overwhelming majority of Black families, Black women are the main source of financial support.
The good news is that fixing this is within reach. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggests we can confront the racial wage gap by performing annual pay audits, not asking about previous earnings when setting new hire salaries, and using data-driven technology to automate the compensation decision-making process. This takes unconscious biases out of the recruiting and hiring processes.
Give paid family leave
Black families have long been expected to care for their older relatives, in addition to caring for their children. A lack of good health care, wealth inequality in previous generations, and systematic barriers to quality jobs that leave you in a strong position at retirement are the drivers that make Black families more likely than white families to play this role.
As this takes a massive mental, financial, and physical toll, companies can help by offering guaranteed paid sick and family leave. Today, 33 million people in the private workforce have no paid sick time to care for themselves. And more than 80% of these workers are without paid leave to care for a family member. This is unacceptable, especially considering the devastating impact of COVID-19.
Our global pandemic is hitting Black communities hard. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 33% of hospitalized patients with COVID were Black, even though Blacks made up just 18% of the community being evaluated. Black families are also facing greater economic difficulties and mental health challenges than other communities because of COVID-19.
Without paid leave, we are left more vulnerable. Fixing this will have a huge positive impact on the Black family.
Help reduce college debt
Four years after earning a bachelor’s degree, Black college graduates have nearly $25,000 more student loan debt than white bachelor’s graduates. Again, this disparity is driven by both the racial pay gap and lack of generational wealth that exists in Black families.
For generations, we’ve been paid less while shouldering more responsibility than our counterparts. Our parents and grandparents didn’t have the luxury of saving for their children’s future. Don’t get me wrong, they hoped and prayed we’d go further than they did, but financial limitations were our reality. We borrow more money, but because of the pay gap, aren’t able to pay off these debts as quickly. Black student-loan borrowers default on their loans at five times the rate of white graduates.
A strong case can be made for the federal government to cancel student debt as reparations. In the absence of this, companies should follow in the footsteps of Google, PwC, and others and help reduce their employees’ student loans. Debt reduction also happens to be a good retention strategy for your company.
It’s time to learn from the past and open the door to a racially just workplace, one where all employees have what they need to fulfill their human potential and provide for their families and future generations.