75% Of Women Of Colour Experience Racism At Work. Is Anyone Surprised?

"With the Black Lives Matter stuff, there has been a lot of conversation and reflection at work – but what’s changed?"
Black women have to hide who they are at work.
Charday Penn via Getty Images
Black women have to hide who they are at work.

It’s been two years since George Floyd was devastatingly murdered in front of our eyes. After the brutal killing, there was seldom a company that failed to put out a statement on racism, diversity and inclusion.

Many Black people and other people of colour watched on with rolled eyes. For racialised groups, these felt shallow. And new research shows not much has changed.

In fact, things are still pretty dire. An astonishing 75% of women of colour say they experience racism at work, 27% say they suffered racial slurs, and more than 61% have to change themselves to fit in – with Muslim women significantly more likely to do so.

The report entitled Broken Ladders, commissioned by gender equality organisation the Fawcett Society and race equality think-tank Runnymede Trust, documented the experiences of 2,000 women of colour in workplaces.

It looked at the structural racism faced by women of colour at work and of women from different religions.

They found that:

  • 50% of women of Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage and 48% of women of Black African heritage said they had been criticised for behaviours other colleagues get away with, compared to 29% of white British women.

  • Black women of Caribbean heritage, and women of East Asian and Chinese heritage were the least likely to report ‘often’ or ‘always’ feeling comfortable in their workplace culture, at 43% and 41%, respectively.

  • Muslim women were significantly more likely to make changes to themselves at work than non-religious women or women of other religions. 53% of Muslim women changed the clothes they wear at work ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a bit’, compared to 37% of Christian women and 32% of non-religious women.

The data reveals that institutional racism is common across all sectors and in all types of organisations and this leads to a cumulative negative impact on women of colour.

As well as being subject to racism, workplace cultures mean that women of colour have to change who they are in order to fit in.

The data showed that WOC feel they have to change the language they use at work (37%), the topics they talk about (35%), their hairstyle (26%), the food they eat (28), and even their names (22%).

Black women of African heritage were most likely to change by a ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a bit’, changing their clothes (54%), the language they use (50%), the topics they talk about (46%), their hairstyle (39%), and accent (29%).

Janine*, a Black woman working in communications, can relate to these sentiments. “Looking back now, I realise that my face never seemed to fit. I was always the person that could be relied on to step up or step in to do the extra work to prepare other people for the big meetings, but never invited to those spaces on equal terms,” she says.

“With the Black Lives Matter stuff, there has been a lot of conversation and reflection at work – but what’s changed?

“I’ve always tried to be positive to get on with things, but that fundamental lack of confidence that I’ve always carried, is because of my experience in education and work.

“I am a Black woman. I don’t straighten my hair. I speak with a London accent. It has never been a question of my competence, but fundamentally to do with how I look and the perceptions that people have of me.

“We think that people get their jobs because of merit. People always believe that even though [it] is obviously not true.”

Maliha, a disabled Bangladeshi woman, also feels the same. “I have faced multiple challenges in being seen as a strong and competent leader, having to work hard and against the grain of the organisation to get to where I am now,” she says. “I have had managers who were threatened by my competence and abilities.”

She also witnessed white colleagues enjoying privileges she didn’t. “They were overly critical of my work, something I knew my other white colleagues didn’t experience. They also appropriated my work and took credit for projects they had made little contribution to. All the Black managers were downgraded, and posts by white managers protected.”

So naturally she went to HR, who were unfortunately no help.

“I remember once going to HR to seek some advice about progression and talk about my frustrations but I was told to ‘hide how clever I was’, as people find that easier to manage and deal with,” she says.

“Having to moderate myself to appease other people’s sense of comfort was not new to me. As long as you conform to stereotypes and remained passive and compliant, you are deemed a safe and manageable employee.

“I was even was labelled as aggressive. Assertiveness is rewarded to a white man, but for me as a Muslim Bangladeshi woman, it was seen as aggressive.”

In response to these troubling results, the Fawcett Society and Runnymede are calling on the government to set-up and back a business-led initiative to tackle ethnicity and gender pay gaps and accelerate change on progression and representation.

They also want the state to legislate to ban salary history questions and require salaries to be published on job advertisements.

But what can employers do in the meantime?

For a start, they can introduce meaningful and intersectional anti-racism training to minimise bias, with outcomes linked to organisational performance targets on diversity and inclusion.

Runnymede and Fawcett also say that companies should set structures that ensure line managers deliver equitable and fair promotion outcomes for all employees and make progression routes explicit and well-known rather than based on informal networks.

Additionally, they may also undertake regular ‘stay interviews’ (an alternative to ‘exit interviews’), giving women of colour safe spaces and opportunities to feedback on their career experiences.

*Names have been changed.