Let's Get Real​: Are Black Women Really In Emotionally Safe Spaces At Work?
Career & Money

Let's Get Real​: Are Black Women Really In Emotionally Safe Spaces At Work?

The issue of emotional safety at work has steadily been a thorn in the side of Black women for decades, and it doesn't seem to be letting up. Recent research conducted by the creators of Exhale, a mental wellness app for women of color, found that 36% of Black women left a job due to not feeling emotionally safe.

And we all know the debilitating horrors of microaggressions, discrimination, and sexism we've had to deal with at one time or another in the workplace, whether overt or covert. (And don't say you can't relate. At best, you're probably getting paid less than your white male and female counterparts in your industry, so even if you love your job and everyone is "super-nice," you're experiencing one or more of these issues, sis.)

With all that we, as beautiful, ambitious, go-getter Black women, have to deal with at work, what does emotional safety really look like in the workplace? And are we really in spaces where we're truly at ease and able to fully flourish?

What Is Emotional Safety?

In reference to the workplace, emotional (or psychological) safety is defined as "a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s okay to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences," Amy Gallo writes for Harvard Business Review.

The benefits of psychological safety at work are linked to a professional's ability to innovate and perform, as well as their creativity, resilience, and learning.

This psychological safety has positive effects, and a major factor in all of it is the actual team. This sort of safety leads to team members “feeling more engaged and motivated because they feel that their contributions matter and that they’re able to speak up without fear of retribution," Gallo reports, citing insights from Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor and author of The Fearless Organization, who reportedly coined the phrase “team psychological safety."

It can also lead to “better decision-making, as people feel more comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns, which often leads to a more diverse range of perspectives being heard and considered.” It fosters “a culture of continuous learning and improvement, as team members feel comfortable sharing their mistakes and learning from them.”

Black Women, Diversity and Toxic Workplaces

Further research has found a positive link between psychological safety and diversity efforts due to the fact that this sort of safety ensures inclusion, understanding, and belonging. Many of us have benefited from diversity initiatives and diverse environments where we feel we’re not only learning from people with different levels of experiences and from different walks of life but are being valued.

However, the whole idealistic practice of the so-called workplace diversity can seem like pure gaslighting due to issues such as Black and Hispanic women often being disenfranchised further due to the veiled racism and indifference involved in meeting “people of color” quotas by welcoming professionals who are neither Black nor Brown.

Despite diversity efforts, Black women are still reportedly in "survival mode" at work and are not being "tapped for their skillsets or supported for promotions." According to another recent survey, 75% of Black women say their companies are not taking full advantage of their skills, and 63% said they don't see a path for advancement at their jobs.

And with the latest blows to affirmative action, the safety net of legally forcing companies to level the career opportunity playing field is slowly gaining holes of job insecurity and covert discrimination that Black women have been fighting against for decades.

How can a Black woman feel psychologically safe in such conditions? Add to that the pay gap and the false diagnosis of "imposter syndrome"---another way to gaslight smart, accomplished Black women instead of enacting real systemic change on the part of corporations and the whole system of work in America--and you've got the perfect concoction for super-dangerous, hazardous and unsavory experience for us.

What Can Black Women Do To Feel Safe at Work?

This is quite the loaded question. While we can try self-accountability, job changes, sabbaticals, or leaving the workforce altogether, that takes the ownness away from the true culprits: corporate leaders and legislators. This issue, as the famous term goes, is above us. As managers and leaders, we can, of course, recommend and even enforce better policies that put the emotional safety of Black women---hell, of all women---as a priority.

We can also partner with workplace allies (especially those who do not look like us, as those driving the power structures often do not) to ensure that policies and practices are in place to ensure that Black women can thrive at work without fear of losing their jobs or being quietly fired or derailed simply for our unique choice in hair, our cultural elements such as our names, religions and world views, our tone of voice in meetings, or our unique way of approaching problem-solving.

We can fight legally and continue to use our voices for change. But the true one-hitter-quitter would be if legislators and billionaire CEOs made their mission to actively listen to professionals, conduct real research, implement real disruptive solutions to the problem, and stop giving lip service to grand gestures of "support" when protests or special advocacy months come around.

They have to put their money where their mouths are and conduct training that pinpoints issues like unconscious bias and ineffective communication. They have to pay us equally and actually take our brain power seriously through promotions and leadership roles beyond diversity posts.

Stunted Progress and Solutions

Experts also offer the following tips on how workplaces can be made to facilitate emotional safety:

Per Harvard Business Review:

  • Company leaders must have “clear systems and accountability” in order to “create foundations for true psychological safety,” so that Black women have a “safety shield” and aren’t left to “fend for themselves.”
  • Company leaders must focus on a "change in systems, not people." This includes, again, policies, the way meetings are run, how promotions are handed down, and the review processes from a human resources standpoint, but aren't limited to those things.
  • Leaders are also encouraged to "level up coaching, 360 feedback, and performance management practices to surface potential biases that are negatively impacting the quality and frequency of these conversations for Black women."
And as Black women professionals, I think it's fair to demand the above in our workplaces from our supervisors and managers and find dynamic ways to advocate for change. This can seem daunting with all we have to deal with on the daily, but it's a worthy fight, nonetheless.

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