Founder Solaris
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How L&D can develop more black women into leaders

Diversity and inclusion aren’t just the preserve of HR – L&D has a responsibility to help drive this agenda forward. Here are seven key ingredients for an L&D strategy that supports and uplifts black women in the workplace.

20th Jan 2021
Founder Solaris
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Portrait of young black business team standing in the office.
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Learning and development managers can contribute to the development of black women leaders in their organisations in a number of ways. Importantly, the first way is to start with yourself.

The role of L&D in supporting HR in the proactive development of black women in organisations is crucial. 

Part of the problem could be you, so start by conducting some serious self-examination of your own biases and working practices. In what way have the processes, systems, ways of working, and criteria for course nomination been barriers to entry for the black woman in your organisation? In addition, what practices and behaviours have you, without intention, supported from the external partners who work with you in the development of your talent?

The CIPD have advice on sourcing diverse suppliers. Having done this thorough self-examination, implement decisive action to address the gaps and challenges raised, with timescales, targets and timely reviews, whilst educating the wider HR organisation. Once you’ve done this, you can turn your attention to the other ways you can make a difference.

Speak up

Self-examination is not enough. For it to work it must result in change and a way to change is to become an ally and a race champion. Amplify the black voices in your organisation proactively. Encourage your stakeholders to take an interest. Use your influence as an L&D leader to raise awareness by providing forums in which the white people in your organisation can listen to the lived experiences of black people.

A recent FT article highlighted the fact that people with foreign sounding names had to send 74% more applications than their white counterparts. For those who prefer to read, share articles from respected publications, such as this one in the HBR that shows that black women are less likely than others to get support in organisations. Travers Smith, the law firm, published an easy-to-read report on how to be an effective ally and more ideas can be found here too.

Self-examination and speaking up to become an ally is great. ‘Walking the talk’ within your organisation and doing so comprehensively and sustainably is where the real difference can be made. Walking the talk means targeted training and development that supplements the talent management practices implemented by your HR colleagues.

The implementation of an integrated and multipronged approach to the training and development of black women in organisations demonstrates a genuine desire to drive change in the diversity of talent in leadership and decision-making positions.  

Seven ingredients for success

There are seven ingredients that, if added to the learning curriculum, can make a difference.

1. Mentoring of two kinds

The value of mentoring has been appreciated for years. The value of mentoring for a black female is doubly important. She faces a double challenge and disadvantage – of being both female and black. She is also often in environments where she is the ‘only one’ or one of just a handful. Providing an internal mentor in whom she can confide and seek advice regarding career opportunities, safely and without judgment, will facilitate her willingness to put her hand up. In addition, providing an external mentor makes a safe space available to her, in which she can share experiences that she may feel embarrassed to share internally – as her lived experiences will be different to others’ within the organisation.

The twist here is that the mentor, whether internal or external, does not need to be a black woman.  They must, however, be someone who, if not black and female, regards themselves as an ally to black women.

2. Sponsors

Nominating the black women in your organisation for a training programme, inside or outside your organisation, is one thing – but her participating in the programme without the active and proactive support of a sponsor will negate the impact this has on her career trajectory. Ensuring she has someone who bats in her corner when she’s not in the room, puts her forward in discussions about nominating high potential talent, creates talent pools and identifies the next set of promotions to partner level, and is an advocate for her will make all the difference.

3. A focus on strengths

The neuroscience scholars among us will recognise that people perform at their best when they feel good about themselves. The same applies to black woman at work. Focusing on, recognising and celebrating her strengths will help her perform at her best. Therefore, training programmes that work to leverage her strengths will make a bigger difference than those focusing on her areas of weakness.

4. The assignment of a coach

A coach with expertise on life skills is worth their weight in gold. Not only does a black woman have the challenge of being black, she is also likely to face all the challenges women typically face – from lower self-confidence to imposter syndrome. In fact, a recent BBC article reported that women of colour are likely to be affected more deeply by imposter syndrome at work than white women.

5. Safety in numbers

The opportunity to embark on a structured training programme with other women like herself will make a massive difference to a black woman in your organisation. It will build her confidence because she’ll be journeying with people who look like her and are able to relate in ways other women cannot. The challenges of imposter syndrome and risks of sticking one’s neck out become much smaller, as areas of commonality are quickly identified.

6. Storytelling rules

The opportunity to hear from role models who have overcome adversity and reached the upper levels within an organisation will boost morale. It is an opportunity to listen to the experiences of others – firstly as an assurance that ‘you are not alone’ and secondly as an encouragement – ‘if she can do it, so can I’. One of the reasons why imposter syndrome is stronger amongst the black female population is the lack of role models in senior positions in their organisations. It is difficult to know that you truly belong if the only person in your organisation and/or at your level who looks like you, is you. When stories include successful requests for promotions, pay increases, securing additional resources, winning challenges in the throes of adversity, you enable listeners to develop courage and instill resilience.

7. The power of networks

Encouraging and facilitating a black women’s network or a broader networking community that encourages the black women members in their community to get together is key. The opportunity to network with other black women from across a variety of industry sectors and organisations broadens perspectives and allows black women to swap lived experiences, lessons learned and challenges faced – providing reassurance. It also provides a strong friendship group of a nature that cannot be found internally.

The role of L&D in supporting HR in the proactive development of black women in organisations is crucial. What it demands, however, is intentional and proactive action – taken with a deeply held conviction of the value that racial equality, equity, inclusion and diversity brings.

Interested in this topic? Read Gender diversity and leading women: one size does not fit all.

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