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Here’s how to enable Black Girl Magic at work

February 3, 2020, 7:33 PM UTC

This is the web version of raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

Happy Black History Month, everyone. We’re kicking off our coverage with some #BlackGirlMagic, courtesy of this opinion piece from Leilani M. Brown, senior vice president of Strategic Partnerships and External Engagement for K12, Inc. More coverage, including some spectacular Super Bowl #LatinaMagic below.


Five years ago, when I first heard the phrase “Black Girl Magic,” I joined the chorus. I readily embraced the way it celebrates Black women—our beauty, intellect, resilience, and accomplishments. In a world that often says we are otherwise, who wouldn’t embrace this wonderful affirmation?

But when it comes to Black women’s participation in the workforce, our career advancement, and our earnings, we are not exactly experiencing the magic at work.

Consider this: Black students are enrolling in college at higher numbers. And according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, in 2017, Black women earned 64% of the bachelor’s degrees, 70% of the master’s degrees, and 68% of the research doctorates awarded to Black students that year.

Despite these achievements, the wage gap for Black women remains daunting, ranging from 47 cents (Louisiana) to 71 cents (Hawaii) to a white man’s average dollar, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Together, these two facts serve to debunk the myth that “college to career” is the only (or best) path to career success and upward mobility.

That notion isn’t just inaccurate—it’s unfair.

In fact, one of the things undermining our progress is a lack of participation in well-paying, technology-driven fields like software engineering, cybersecurity, health care, and manufacturing.

These career fields have the potential to level the playing field relative to access and earnings for all under-represented groups, including Black women. For example, the average median pay for web developers and program designers is more than $69,000 per year. However, in 2019, African Americans made up just 6.7% of the workers in this field.

So, where should business and education leaders start?

If they really want to minimize the inequities at scale—addressing the employment, wage, and participation gaps in a meaningful way—they can and should start preparing young Black girls for the future of work.

And that career preparation should begin in middle and high school. More than two-thirds of employers said in 2017 that they couldn’t find qualified talent to fill open jobs, according to a CareerBuilder survey. And a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 55 million job openings will be created through this year and more than 30% of them will be new-collar—jobs that require education and training beyond high school but less than a bachelor’s degree.

What if Black women could be first in line for these opportunities? What if they had access to tools like hands-on work experience, industry credentials, and specialized certifications, so they could be more competitive in today’s job market and tomorrow’s?

Career readiness and workforce development programs provide students with these tools and exposure to different career fields. Some programs—like those at Year Up and Idaho Technical Career Academy—even offer students the chance to earn college credits or work toward industry certifications, which can help give Black women a leg-up in the new-collar job market.

Schools, companies, and community organizations need to do more to prepare young Black girls and women to seize these opportunities.

I want to be clear—I am in no way suggesting that Black women should abandon their college dreams and aspirations. I went to college, my child will likely attend, and it is a great option for many young people.

But if one must incur significant student debt for a degree that doesn’t translate into a high-paying job, is it worth it? For many, that answer is a resounding no. On average, a Black woman graduating with a bachelor’s degree will enter the workforce with around $30,000 in student loan debt, according to an American Association of University Women (AAUW) report. This is nearly $4,000 more than the debt of Black male loan borrowers, and it’s nearly $11,000 more than that of their white male counterparts.

To change the tide, business and education leaders need to think critically—and speak honestly—about what is working and what is not. By romanticizing just one version of success, they are doing a disservice to Black women. And if it persists, it will continue to rob Black women of income-earning potential that could make a significant difference in their lives.

At the end of the day, it really is up to each of us—private-sector partners and education officials, parents and community members—to ensure that we are preparing our girls for the future of work and to be life-long learners and equitable earners in the new economy. This collective group should participate in a movement that addresses the earnings gap—a movement that supports Black girls and women and ensures that we achieve pay equity, greater opportunities and upward mobility.

Now that would be Black Girl Magic—at work.

Leilani M. Brown is senior vice president of Strategic Partnerships and External Engagement at K12 Inc. She is also a board member for Tallo, a platform that connects young adults to career and higher education opportunities, and author of From Campus to Cubicle: 25 Tips for Your First Professional Year.


Ellen McGirt curated and wrote the blurbs in this edition of raceAhead.

On Point

The Super Bowl half-time show was a tribute to Latina Magic Jennifer Lopez and Shakira delivered a truly electrifying bilingual performance last night. Lopez sent a strong message of solidarity to Puerto Rico; Shakira, who is of both Colombian and Lebanese heritage, taught everyone what a zaghrouta is. “I feel truly honored to be representing so many people out there,” said Shakira at a conference earlier last week. “Women, Latinas and people of any ages. I think J.Lo and I are here redefining paradigms about age, about race, about background.” And yes, the commercials still matter, whether they make you laugh, cry, or angry all over again.

Black women may sit out the Iowa caucuses While some 40% of Iowa voters are undecided, Black women in Iowa seem to be leaning back from the caucusing process. One problem seems to be that they’re not a focus. "They're reaching out more to the rural areas of Iowa than they are in Des Moines to me,” 61-year-old Kim McCracken-Smith told NBC News. “And in rural Iowa, there's no black people.” And when campaigns do reach out to Black voters, their messages are generic. But even in places with small Black populations, it’s a worrying oversight, says Aimee Allison, founder of She the People. “That may be what black women are thinking in other places where we need high turnout in order to win.”
NBC News

Former BET CEO Debra Lee may be set to launch an investment fund that focuses on Black women founders This is one of the tantalizing details that is buried in this report on Lee’s recent appearance at the invitation-only Upfront Summit in Pasadena, Calif., last week. For the most part, Lee’s remarks were a strong boost for diversity in business at the highest levels. “[A]ll the issues that Time’s Up was investigating—the harassment, revenge, retribution, women being harassed—those things can’t happen if you have women in decision-making roles,” she says. Then, she spilled a little tea about her three years on Twitter’s board before hinting that a few of her high powered friends were considering a fund that would support women of color in tech.

Black women most likely to be “elder orphans” Census data show that one-quarter of the U.S. population will be over 65 by 2060, but within that number are cohorts of people who are aging alone, facing a “kin gap” without a partner, children, siblings or other relatives.  Some 2.2% of Black women and 1.7% of Black men were “kinless” in 2015, compared to just over 1% of white women and less than 1% of white men, figures which are expected to rise to 7 and 6% respectively by 2060.

On Background

White parents aren’t letting their kids play football anymore The game has long been sold as a character-building exercise, a place where rambunctious boys can learn teamwork, earn scholarships, and get fit while staying out of trouble. Except now… brain damage? There were nearly 7% fewer student-athletes participating in youth-tackle football in the 2017 to 2018 season, and it’s increasingly upper-income kids from white families who are opting out. “This divergence paints a troubling picture of how economic opportunity—or a lack thereof—governs which boys are incentivized to put their body and brain at risk to play,” explains Alana Semuels.
The Atlantic

Why American Dirt endures Julio Ricardo Varela, the co-host of the Webby-nominated "In The Thick" podcast and founder of, is unsparing in his assessment of the American Dirt issue, a neatly marketed product for the white savior complex crowd. “American Dirt was, and will always be, for the kind of mostly white liberal who says they care about immigration policy but still look at immigrants from the Global South, and the Global South itself, with a discomfort they don’t ever want to admit,” he writes. That’s why the critiques haven’t made any difference. “It doesn’t matter what any given writer, reviewer or group of authors does to try to stop it; the urge to 'other us' for our own good is apparently too powerful for the publishing industry to resist.”
NBC Opinion

Let’s lose ourselves to Chinese science fiction I’ve been carving out time to familiarize myself with the extraordinary body of science fiction writing coming out of China, and thanks Clarkesworld magazine there’s a growing number of stories that have been translated into English. My current fave is the award-winning Wang Yao, who writes under the name Xia Jia. When she’s not publishing speculative science fiction, she’s an associate professor of Chinese Literature at Xi’an Jiaotong University. Clarkesworld has created a dedicated imprint to publish longer translated works, the first of which is a collection of Jia’s stories. Click through to learn more.
The Verge

Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.


“You don't be afraid. I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man's definition, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention and by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word "integration" means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.”

James Baldwin, "A Letter to My Nephew," first published The Progressive magazine in 1962.