Building ladders to success for Black women in the workplace

OPINION: A new report by Every Level Leadership found a critical lack of formal mentorship and sponsorship programs for Black women and that access to these types of programs are pivotal to Black women’s ability to thrive in the workplace.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Remember the board game “Chutes and Ladders”? You win by rolling dice to move from square one at the bottom of the board to the top right-hand square. Players can move more quickly by landing on a “ladder,” which allows them to skip ahead. They can also be sent backwards by landing on a “chute”—making the road to winning even longer.

The game is a good representation of what is happening to Black women in the workforce—except that our movement up or down the “board” is not by chance. As we know too well, we encounter far more “chutes” than “ladders” in our professional lives.

Ladders are the informal factors that give us a boost in our careers—the networks that help us find jobs, the mentors who guide us on professional development and career opportunities, and the sponsors who cut through bureaucratic channels and make advancement easier.

Access to these informal factors is pivotal to Black women’s ability to thrive in the workplace. But it is well-documented that we do not have equal access to opportunities, power, and organizational resources at work.

In Black Women Thriving 2022, a major new report by Every Level Leadership, we found a critical lack of formal mentorship and sponsorship programs for Black women. We know that both formal and informal mentoring and sponsorship already exist—but both types of  “ladders” are frequently inaccessible to Black women. 

The numbers tell the story. Only about 20 percent of Black women report ever having participated in a mentoring program within their organization. Sponsorship was even more rare: Only 9 percent of Black employees reported having sponsors. For Black gender-expansive (e.g., nonbinary, gender fluid) and LGBTQIA+ people, those opportunities are essentially nonexistent.

Our exclusion is by design.

Black women cannot thrive at work without these “ladders.” Our skills are underutilized and underdeveloped by organizations. And over half of Black women report they are dissatisfied with their current jobs—largely because they do not see a career trajectory at their current organization.

This should be a clear wake-up call for organizations, which are ultimately harming themselves by failing to build these programs for Black women. In a world clamoring for DEI efforts and strategies, one of the easiest ideas for organizations to implement is offering formal mentoring and sponsorship programs. Black women must also ask for these opportunities and make it clear that we expect them.

But let’s be clear—the onus for building these ladders and all other inclusion and equity efforts sits firmly on organizations’ shoulders, not on Black women. We are tired of trying to navigate broken systems we did not create. We are tired of broken promises and too many “chutes” that make our work frustrating and unfulfilling. Forward-thinking organizations that want to succeed will take recommendations like this and many others in the Black Women Thriving 2022 report and begin constructing intentional mentorship and sponsorship ladders designed specifically for the needs of Black women.

In that game, everyone wins.

Ericka Hines, principal of Every Level Leadership and Black Women Thriving, is an adviser and strategist who works with organizations to align their commitments to inclusion and equity with their everyday actions and operations. Over a dozen years, she has worked with organizations across the country to help their staff and stakeholders learn how to work in more inclusive and equitable cultures. She published the Black Women Thriving research paper in June 2022.

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