/ 27 September 2022

Black women: Unseen superheroes of the workplace

Focused Businesswoman With Headphones Working In Office
Black women face unconscious bias, added responsibilities and a lack of support in the workplace. Until this changes, transformation is not complete

The recent release of the Employment Equity Report of 2021 showed that the representation of black persons, particularly black women, in senior management positions has remained stagnant in South Africa for the past 24 years, despite the Employment Equity Act which was enacted in 1998 to promote equal opportunity, fair treatment, and eliminate discrimination in the workplace. 

This disappointing reality 28 years after South Africa transitioned into a democracy and supposedly achieved economic, political and social freedoms must be investigated. Surely, Women’s Day commemorations and celebrations should also spark honest and open dialogue on the state of transformation in our country. 

We must ask ourselves why, after 28 years, we are still grappling with tangible transformation in the workplace. The business case for transformation was already made at the Women’s March and has been echoed in numerous academic articles, journals and studies. So why are we failing to achieve something that is so key to business profits, and employee wellness, and which ultimately results in economic growth? 

As we struggle to achieve transformation, black women continue to be burdened as the superheroes of the workplace – the unseen superheroes, that is. We wear a cape that is not a badge of honour but a rag of burnout and exhaustion. It is oxymoronic that while we are superheroes, we remain unseen. Our hard work beyond our job descriptions is invisible. To this end, the cost of South Africa’s stagnant transformation is borne by black women in the workplace. 

When black women climb to the top, they have a different experience from other races and genders in the same or similar positions. I proved this hypothesis in 2018 with my MSc dissertation titled On Private Financial Companies and Black Women: The Effect of the Employment Equity Act on Black Women in South Africa. 

The dissertation examined the effect of South Africa’s affirmative action legislation, the Employment Equity Act, on the representation, corporate experience and career progression of nine black women in strategic decision-making positions in private companies within the financial services sector in South Africa.

The study came after I read the shocking findings of the 2017 Employment Equity Report, which again stated that black women have remained stagnant as many private financial companies are still dominated by white men.

What I did not understand about my research five years ago is that the experiences of these nine black women are not specific to the financial services sector, but these themes can be seen across numerous sectors where black women are in leadership positions. I also realised that these experiences are not siloed to the nine interviewees but experienced by many black women I’ve engaged with, even myself. 

We have become the unseen superheroes of the workplace. We must have honest reflections about the experiences of black women in senior positions in companies and organisations, look at the additional barriers and expectations black women experience, and how these could be avoided if actual transformation took place. 

My research revealed key themes in the experiences of these nine black women; namely, unconscious bias in the workplace, black women’s dual responsibility, and lack of support from fellow designated groups.

As I reflect on my own journey, these key themes have emerged throughout my career and those of my black women peers too. 

Unconscious bias in the workplace

The biggest barrier for black women in the workplace that the Employment Equity Act does not address is unconscious bias, which though apparent at all management levels, is more pronounced at top and senior management levels. The lack of black female representation in companies allows the unconscious bias to be perpetuated. 

Unconscious biases can be defined as social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. The women expressed that unconscious bias assumes a lack of talent from black employees. As such, black women in the workplace feel the need to perform with excellence or overcompensate in the delivery of their work in comparison to white employees, simply to gain respect and to be seen as intelligent and of value. 

As one of the women I interviewed said: “There is always that assumed excellence. The idea is that they [white employees] don’t have to work that hard in comparison to our instances where we have to jump through hoops and jump over fires to be able to get the same level of respect.”

The unconscious bias that black women experience has negative consequences on how they navigate the workforce as it creates a sense of non-belonging. 

Black women’s dual responsibility

A common thread in the stories of the interviewees was the dual responsibility to not only excel in the workplace by reaching company targets but to also champion gender and racial transformation. While the latter responsibility was not included in the job description of these black women leaders, it is an unspoken responsibility that stems from both internal and external pressures. The women take it upon themselves to champion diversity, as one interviewee sadly said: “If I am not the champion of transformation, who will be?”

This dual responsibility is not experienced by their white male counterparts who need only focus on business performance, as black women have the responsibility of reaching business targets, driving transformation and mentoring other black staff to follow in their paths. 

One woman expressed how she carries out this dual responsibility for maternal reasons: “But I am continuing this journey because if I pack my bags and leave, it will be the same for you, and for my daughter, and my great-grandchildren. So, my being there gives hope to a few other black females and even any other black person that it is possible, we can get there. So even if my sticking around is to give somebody hope, I intend to do that.”

The unintended consequence of this dual responsibility is that black women are often perceived as trouble-makers for raising critical matters of transformation.

Lack of support from fellow designated groups

Black women share race with black men and gender with white women. With these commonalities, all three of these groups have faced oppression at some point in history. Moreover, these groups have all experienced under-representation in top management in the workplace. To that end, it is expected that the fellow groups would support one another as they navigate the workplace.

However, there is a lack of support for black women by black men and white women, particularly white women in the workplace. While there are shared gender challenges in the workplace, racial differences make the experience of black women and white women vastly different, including the lack of dual responsibility. 

One interviewee described white women in the workforce as wanting to be seen as equal to powerful white men by all means necessary, rather than wanting to uplift other women, especially black women. 

“The experience of black females is different from the experience of white females,” said one interviewee. “There is no sisterhood there. Maybe there is no shared experience, I don’t know. So black women are profoundly isolated, and isolation is trauma.”

The analysis above highlights the need for urgent transformation in South Africa’s employment landscape, especially in senior management positions. Without urgent transformation, black women continue to be burdened as the unseen superheroes of the workplace — they deal with unconscious bias, carry dual responsibilities and navigate without much support from designated groups. 

Superheroes must be seen, appreciated and validated. Without transformation, and deliberate shifts in culture, black women will continue to be burdened by inequality and unfortunately burn out. Corporates must be intentional in shaping a different South Africa. Our executive and management committees must represent the diversity of our country.

I hope that we can have a different discussion about transformation in the next 28 years.

Farai Mubaiwa is a change-maker, a TEDx speaker, a One Young World Ambassador and a King’s Principal’s Global Leadership Award recipient. In 2018 she was named as one of the 100 Mandelas of the Future by Media24 and in 2020 she was rated as one of the top 100 Influential Young South Africans. Mubaiwa is a Dalai Lama 2019 Fellow and the 2021 recipient of the Stellenbosch University Exceptional Alumni award.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.