Women of color feel undervalued at work, Billie Jean King-backed study finds

The study surveyed more than 1,000 women who say they feel undervalued and underutilized in the workplace.

Tennis legend Billie Jean King helped fund a new study on the experiences of women of color in the workplace.

The study, PowHer Redefined: Women of Color Reimagining the World of Work, reveals stunning results regarding how women of color feel undervalued in the workplace. King’s nonprofit leadership group Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative funded the study; women of color-focused membership community nFormation partnered with the initiative. 

Almost 1,200 women identified as Black, Asian, Native, Latinx, and mixed-race participated in the study. Nearly three-quarters of participants feel they have to prove themselves “over and over” at work. Two-thirds believe they don’t have access to sponsors. Another 57% say they do not get the credit for the ideas they contribute, while 54% say women undermine one another in the workplace in order to advance, creating a crabs-in-a-barrel environment.

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(Credit: Adobe Stock)

While 76% say they contribute much-needed skills to their jobs, 68% say they are willing to speak up in certain situations, whether good or uncomfortable. 

Despite the downside of the study results, there is some hope. One suggestion is that corporations, called “co-conspirators” in the study, have the power to make changes. It calls for women of color to work to make systemic changes within these corporations and unlock the potential power of what nFormation cofounder Rha Goddess refers to as “an underutilized resource.”

In an interview with Fast Company, King and Goddess spoke about the need they felt to embark on the study. For King, the desire started in her childhood.

“[When I was] 12 years old, I was daydreaming at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, and I was thinking about [how] everybody who played wore white shoes, white socks, white clothes, played with white balls,” she said. “Everybody who played was white. And I said, ‘Well, where’s everyone else?’ I promised myself that day that I would fight for equality the rest of my life.”

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Tennis legend Billie Jean King acknowledges the crowd at the presentation after Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark defeated Elise Mertens of Belgium in the semi-final match on day 11 of the 2018 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

 King was further inspired by, Althea Gibson, the first Black person to win a Grand Slam tennis title (in 1956). She refers to Gibson as her “shero.”

“I saw her and I saw how great you have to be to be number one,” King said. “[Backing this study] was a no-brainer for us because it is so important that we hear from women of color, their truth, their stories, what they’re feeling, what they’re experiencing.”

Goddess said the most shocking reveal of the study is how underutilized women of color are in the workplace. She encourages corporations to be diverse not just in their hiring, but also in the way they have employees contribute.

“If you’re interested in a more diverse and inclusive talent base, which enables you to win and grow and achieve your missions, then you got some listening to do, and we’ve got some work to do,” she said.

The biggest takeaway for Goddess is that women of color have to show up and speak up. If they realize their workplace isn’t working for them, it’s time to reevaluate.

“Every single one of us has a right to discern whether or not we’re in environments that are going to support our health and well-being,” she said.

“I listened to well over a thousand women who had to sort of step outside of their values, or their cultural groundings, in order to excel and achieve in these environments—that literally began to take a physical toll on their health and well-being. And so I think we’re in a moment of reckoning around these challenges and around these issues. We’ve got to come home to ourselves.”

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