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Survey: Less than half of women of color say they have a fair chance to advance at work

Employers: Do you want to keep your talented employees who are women of color? If so, you better shape up—and fast.

New research from Working Mother Research Institute entitled Multicultural Women at Work has some discouraging findings when it comes to the engagement and advancement of women of color in the workplace.

  • Less than half (48%) of the women of color surveyed said they are satisfied with their ability to move to a better position at their companies.
  • Just 29% say they will definitely stay with their current company for the next three years.
  • Fifty-four percent of African-American women and 36% of Asian women said race, not talent, was the first thing people noticed about them when they walked into the room. In contrast, more than half of white women say their talent is the first thing people spot.

The survey also looked at women’s desire to advance. A full 54% of multicultural women surveyed said they wanted jobs with more responsibility, versus 41% of white women.

Companies that don’t provide their multicultural employees with opportunities for advancement or an environment where they can be themselves are likely to lose talent, says Subha Barry, VP and general manager of Working Mother Media.

“This population [of professional women of color] is growing and companies need to recognize that those that they have on their books—who are few and far between—are not happy where they are and are likely to leave them,” Barry says.

Fortunately, there are a number of things companies can do to engage and retain women of color, say Barry and other experts.

Stop being uptight about differences.

Companies that pay lip service to diversity, yet express discomfort about how multicultural women look or dress are sending mixed messages, says Barry. Survey respondents who said they can be their authentic selves at work reported greater job satisfaction than those who did not (91% vs. 36%), as well as better communication with their boss (80% vs. 44%). They were also more likely to say that they are treated equally within the company (78% vs 29%).

That means not assuming a Muslim woman who wears a hijab is timid and can’t speak up, or that an African-American woman who doesn’t straighten her hair is unprofessional. “Value them for the brains, for the intellect, for the work ethic and for all of the other things that they bring to the table. Do not make a judgment about them because of the way they do their hair,” says Barry.

Start talking about diversity.

Simma Lieberman, founder of Simma Lieberman Associates, a diversity consultancy in Berkeley, California, says that companies need to make women of color feel welcome from the moment they walk in the door. She suggests that firms assign someone to take new employees “under her wing” and help address any concerns.

Diversity consultant Sharon E. Jones, founder of Chicago-based Jones Diversity, Inc. agrees. Company leadership should also talk about the importance of diversity and help employees open up about what is and isn’t okay behavior. “It should be fine to say, ‘When you did x, it made me feel this way,’ or “It made me feel excluded,’” Jones says. Of course, having such open dialogue without hurt feelings or resentment takes work and practice, she says.

Make sure opportunities exist.

Take a look at your leadership. Are there any women of color in top roles? If multicultural women don’t see themselves reflected in a company’s leadership, they’re not going to have much faith that the company will provide them opportunities for advancement, says Jones. Work on defining career paths for all employees and be sure to put forth diverse slates of candidates for promotion opportunities, rather than just hand-selecting a few candidates, she suggests.

Train for unconscious bias.

Managers may be biased without realizing it. It’s human nature to gravitate toward people who look, think and act like you do, Jones says. Consider instituting unconscious bias training to help managers and employees become more aware of their behaviors and to root out some of the assumptions that are made about various races and ethnicities, she says.

Initiate formal mentoring programs.

When you just leave people to their own devices to find mentors, many employees will be left out or paired with mentors who don’t help. Instead, create a formal program that thoughtfully matches employees and mentors according to goals, skills and expertise, says Lieberman.

School your search firms.

It is important to be explicit with executive recruiters about diversity, Jones says. If white men are who your company has tended to hire in the past, your search firm may just send you more of the same, she says.

Check your metrics.

Data will tell you a lot. Take the time to scrutinize salaries for disparities related to gender, race, and ethnicity, track promotion rates of women of color and calculate gender, race and ethnicity ratios in various areas of the company, especially leadership. When companies take an active role in tracking these metrics, says Barry, it sends a message that they’re serious about advancing women of color.

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