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U.S. Black History Month
Nadeje McArthur

Nadeje McArthur

Social Media and Brand Manager, Culture Amp

In 1976, United States President Gerald Ford designated February as U.S. Black History Month. This recognition came 50 years after its original inception as Negro History Week in 1926, which is credited to Carter G. Woodson, a Black historian and scholar known as the “Father of Black History.” The month-long celebration honors the generations of African Americans who have contributed to the advancement of society in the United States and beyond.

In the last several decades, multiple historical events have helped push the Black community forward, including the implementation of Affirmative Action policies, the Million Man March, and the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. These achievements have inspired the Black community as well as other marginalized communities to continue to strive for equal rights, racial justice, and equity across society.

However, many disparities still exist between Black and White community. Despite efforts to equalize access in the education system, Black students still experience significant gaps and disadvantages compared to White students when it comes to college access and the types of higher education credentials they receive (i.e. certification v.s. Associate’s degree v.s. Bachelor’s degree). Moreover, racial disparities in the United States criminal justice system contribute to the unfair policing and treatment of Black Americans, with a Pew Research study finding that Black adults are almost five times more likely than White adults to say they’ve been unfairly stopped by the police. Racial bias and police brutality against the Black community ultimately sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in 2013 and grew significantly in 2020.

At that time, many organizations responded by announcing commitments to racial justice and donating to groups that support the Black communities. However, many of those same organizations were, and still are, struggling to genuinely support their Black employees and take meaningful action. Every year, companies plan events and issue statements to celebrate Black History month, but actual progress has been slow. It is time for organizations to dig deeper and identify ways to make real improvements to the Black experience.

In this article, we take a deep dive into the Black employee experience. We also spoke with five Black Campers at Culture Amp about their experiences in tech and what organizations can do to better support them. We hope this blog will encourage companies and leaders to take action on diversity, equity, and inclusion – not just during Black History Month, but every month.

What the data reveals about the Black employee experience

While many organizations have implemented policies, programs, and procedures directed at creating equity in the workplace, the data shows that very little progress has been made.

According to SHRM, Black folks continue to experience a striking gap in compensation compared to White employees, with Black men earning 87 cents and Black women 63 cents to every dollar earned by White, non-Hispanic men. This number only gets worse when we consider Black women, whose wage gap amounts to a loss of $21,001 a year. To put this number into context, the average Black woman must work for more than 19 months to make what the average White, non-Hispanic man makes in a 12-month calendar year.

Meanwhile, a report by McKinsey found that Black workers have been overrepresented in low-growth industries for years, and have seen little to nearly no increase in high-growth, high-paying industries including information technology, professional services, financial services, and tech. 45% of all Black private-sector workers are employed in industries with large front-line presence (healthcare, retail, accommodation, and food service), which not only pay less but also fail to open up opportunities for advancement.

Black workers are also profoundly underrepresented in managerial and leadership roles, and the employees who do become managers very rarely reach the top level, despite the proven benefits of diversity in leadership. Black professionals hold only 3.2% of all executive or senior leadership roles and less than 1% of all Fortune 500 CEO positions according to SHRM.

This data only touches on some of the systemic barriers that Black workers face in the workplace. Unconscious biases and racial prejudice lead to microaggressions, inequities in pay and promotion, bias in hiring, a sense of ostracization, and more.

Taking a closer look: Black professionals in tech

For many Black employees, the tech industry feels more inclusive and forward-thinking than longer-standing industries such as banking. As a result, many Black professionals aspire to join the tech industry, which they believe may be a better fit and offer more opportunities. Jovan Givens, Senior Customer Success Coach, explains, “There’s more expectation for tech companies to make meaningful change as it relates to DEI because tech is a newer industry.”

Unfortunately, many tech companies are still far from achieving a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. The data reveals that the representation of Black employees in high-tech industries is just 7.4%, even though about 13% of the U.S. population is Black. A separate study found that just 4% of top earners in the tech sector were Black, again reinforcing the fact that many Black workers (even in tech) are stuck in the lower levels of the organization, which serves to reproduce rather than reduce the racial wealth gap. Moreover, progress has been slow to come, with many of the largest Big Tech companies making only minimal improvements in Black representation.

Black representation in Big Tech

This is in spite of the fact that the tech industry has recently experienced a surge in job opportunities for both technical and non-technical positions. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there will be a 12% increase in tech job opportunities between 2021 and 2024. As our workforce continues to adapt and pivot to hybrid and remote environments, there is no doubt that the need for tech employees will grow. However, tech organizations must make an actual, concerted effort to help Black workers thrive, not just hire them.

Achieving this ideal will require turning DEI commitment into action and empowering DEI teams and leaders with the resources they need to push real change. As a matter of fact, Culture Amp’s People Scientists found that although over 80% of companies agree that DEI is beneficial for their organization and that their company is building a diverse and inclusive culture, only 34% of companies actually provide their HR teams with adequate resourcing for DEI initiatives. If companies are serious about making a difference for their Black employees, this number must change – if DEI is a priority, then it deserves a budget that reflects its importance to the organization.

It can be daunting to unlearn specific ways of working in the United States when there are so many systemic issues around gender inequality, racism, and socioeconomic statuses embedded into the foundation of companies, but it’s certainly worth the effort. How an organization decides to move forward is what separates performative support from true progress.

Things for leadership to remember

Leaders’ responsibilities are always evolving. In the last few years, leaders have had to respond to events such as the ongoing global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other social justice movements like #StopAAPIHate.

In our 2022 Workplace DEI Report, we found that White employees are the most likely to believe that their organizations provide equitable compensation and fair career pathing. This is troubling because White employees are also more likely to be in positions of power. Thus, leadership at a company, which is likely mostly White, may not work to rectify inequities because they don’t believe they exist.

For this reason, it’s important for leaders to listen to their employees, especially if the leaders in question are White. One way to start is with an Inclusion survey, which can help DEI teams collect data on how different groups of employees experience your company culture. By surfacing disparities in the employee experience, DEI teams will be able to identify exactly which areas to focus on to create the most significant progress for a given community.

Illustration of a hand holding symbols which represent diversity and inclusion.

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Learn more about Culture Amp's Inclusion survey

Beyond collecting feedback, leadership should also cultivate a company-wide culture where Black employees are respected and feel like they belong. During conversations with our Black Campers, we identified other ways people can show up and empower their Black coworkers in a meaningful way.

  • Make space for Black employees. Support your black coworkers and employees by amplifying their voices and making sure they feel safe, heard, and valued. Moreover, ensure that these spaces exist across all levels of the organization and in every conversation. Setira Grizzle, Customer Success Manager, elaborates, “Are you giving Black employees a seat at the table not just when you’re talking about diversity things, but also about all the other things that touch on the experience of Black employees?”

    In other words, take the time to have conversations with your Black team members, and make sure their feedback isn’t being overshadowed or dismissed. This shouldn’t only happen when major events occur, but on a regular basis – whether the topic is about DEI, new product features, what to cater at the next company event, or anything else.
  • Create clear career paths. Employees of all backgrounds crave growth and development. Unfortunately, employees from marginalized communities are often held back by systemic barriers (e.,g., lack of mentorship) and biases that make accessing certain opportunities difficult. For example, a Black employee may struggle to have productive development conversations with their manager because they feel unsupported and unseen.

    That’s why creating clear and structured career paths is so important. In our 2022 Workplace DEI report, we found that clear career paths are one of the most impactful ways companies can improve equity. By making it a part of the company culture to have explicitly outlined roadmaps for growth and promotions, employees from marginalized communities and their managers can establish alignment around what success and “the next step” looks like. Moreover, transparent standards significantly reduce the potential for biases to creep in – making the overall development and performance process fairer and more trustworthy.
  • Ensure diversity throughout the organization – especially in leadership. It isn’t enough to only have Black employees in specific departments or across entry-level roles in the organization. After all, Black talent isn’t limited to any one area or level of a company. Jerome Willhort, Customer Success Coach, explains, “It’s not enough for all of us to be at an entry-level position or even manager positions. We need to be all throughout the organization.”

    On top of promoting Black talent into higher roles in the company, organizations need a robust diversity recruiting strategy. Strive for equitable representation across the company, from managers to the C-suite. Diversity in leadership is especially important when you consider the lack of diverse mentorship and role models for employees from marginalized communities.
  • Have a stance. It can be challenging for organizations to make formal commitments to DEI or racial justice, especially because these topics are often politically-charged and divisive. However, silence is also a stance. If a company says it cares about its Black employees, but isn’t willing to respond to, for example, employees’ calls for racial justice, then that company will lose the trust of its employees.

    Having a mission statement is one of the most powerful ways an organization can lay the foundation for a strong and effective DEI strategy, according to the 2022 Workplace DEI report. A mission statement is a public commitment to equity and inclusion that is communicated to not only employees but also stakeholders and customers. That being said, statements are useless and merely performative if the commitments outlined in them aren’t turned into actions.
  • Educate yourself. People in the organization must do their own “homework” and educate themselves with reliable resources. Non-Black people must not expect their Black co-workers to “teach” them about the Black experience when so many resources already exist.

Celebrate Black History Month by taking action

Every organization can make a positive impact on the Black employee experience. This Black History Month, let’s move beyond performativity and blanket statements, and towards greater understanding, self-education, and strategic action. Whether it’s holding your first Inclusion survey, hiring more intentionally, or speaking up on behalf of your Black coworkers, we can all do our part in creating a better world. As James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

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