How Leadership Development Programmes Fail Black Women

Jo Larbie, 30th October 2018

October is Black History Month in the UK, and while many things are changing around us, when it comes to the advancement of black women in major organisations, little has changed.   Apart from a few – Karen Blackett (WPP), Sharon White (Ofcom), Kim Dero (London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham), the number of black women at the top of or in director positions is woefully small.  For more black women to advance into leadership roles, women’s leadership development programmes must address the fact that traditional and generic advice to women can create problems for black women.

Very few women’s leadership development programmes concentrate on the intersectionality experienced by black and ethnic minority women in the workplace.  Intersectionality refers to how different identities, such as gender, race, ethnicity and class overlap and combine, creating unique experiences of disadvantage and privilege in the workplace.

A lot of the research assumes that the stereotypes associated with each group apply to all individuals who belong to the group: gender stereotypes apply to all women, regardless of their race, and racial stereotypes apply to all ethnic minorities, regardless of their gender.  Many women’s leadership development programmes take a similar approach to diversity.

Black women have unique stereotypes associated with their dual identities.   In fact, there is little overlap between female stereotypes generally and stereotypes of black women.  However, most women’s leadership development programmes are based on traditional and generic advice to women including:

Career skills required to advance:

Communication skills:

This is the conventional advice given to anyone who wants to build and successfully progress their career.  However, as black women often have to overcome career-limiting stereotypes, this advice can work against them and in some cases, impede their career prospects.

For example, when it comes to communication skills, black women I coach know all too well (and as I also know from personal experience), that if they follow the traditional career advice given to women such as, “speak up” or be assertive”, they run the risk of being seen as “angry black women”.   And as a result, they are likely to be perceived as hostile and threatening, and as a consequence best avoided by others.  In her book “Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race”, Reni Eddo-Lodge says: “I used to be scared of being perceived as an angry black woman.  But I soon realised that any number of authentic emotions I displayed could and would be interpreted as anger.  My assertiveness, passion and excitement could all be used against me.”

Often, black women are advised to:

Women’s leadership development programmes must address intersectionality and its impact on black women’s professional development and career advancement.

They need to deal with the limitations of traditional and ‘one-size-fits-all’ advice to women to ensure that black women are better equipped to fully realise their career potential.

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