Work long enough and you will learn that who you work with can matter more than what you actually work on if you want to get ahead. But who gets assigned as your co-worker on a team is largely out of the control of new hires.
And for Black women, the number of white co-workers they have on their initial team can potentially make or break their experience at a job, according to a new Harvard Kennedy School working paper published in November.
Elizabeth Linos, an associate professor of public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School, along with her colleagues Sanaz Mobasseri and Nina Roussille, looked at the job outcomes of 9,037 new hires in a large professional services firm from 2014 to 2020. The study found that Black women who got hired onto whiter teams were more likely to get flagged as “low performers” a year later, and they also saw lower promotion and retention rates.
Although Asian and Latinx women and men in the study were also in the minority on their white-majority teams, Black women were the only demographic group to face significantly worse promotion and retention outcomes as a result of being placed on a whiter team. The study showed that when the share of white co-workers went up by 14 percentage points, that was associated with a 10.6 percentage-point increase in turnover for Black women.
The whiter their team, the more Black women were likely to get passed over for promotions and quit.
Although all the firm’s new hires got assigned the same type and number of projects, Black women in the study who were initially assigned to whiter teams ended up reporting fewer billable hours and more training hours over the next two years.
And Black women who were initially assigned to whiter teams were more likely to get “labelled as lower performers at the one-year mark,” Linos wrote to HuffPost.
Having fewer billable hours is a huge setback, because in that firm, like many firms, “one of the main metrics used to define employee success is billable hours and so, regardless of your race and gender, employees who report lower billable hours are also likely to receive lower performance scores,” Linos said. “The ‘penalty’ ― how much your performance evaluation drops based on a reduction in billables ― is larger for Black women than other groups.”
Black women were the only demographic group to face significantly worse promotion and retention outcomes as a result of being placed on a whiter team.
Even after controlling for age and academic degree, Black new hires were 32% more likely to turn over within two years of starting and 26% less likely to be promoted on time than their white peers. Out of every group, Black women and white women had the biggest gap in turnover: Black women were 51% more likely to exit the job than their white female peers, whose turnover rate was the lowest in the new-hire cohort.
These findings are in line with previous research suggesting that Black women at work deal with “double jeopardy,” or biases against both their gender and race.
“Ultimately, I interpret these findings as confirmation that while as a society, we may be making progress in diversifying workplaces on some dimensions, Black women may still face additional hurdles for promotion at work,” Linos said.
Shanae Brown, a New York City-based leadership coach for Black women, said she has been the only Black woman on a team of mostly white people at almost every job she has had, and said that early in her career, “it did make me feel like I didn’t belong here.”
Brown said the study’s findings resonated with what she has seen happen to Black women in predominantly white jobs who deal with a lack of support from their manager, in addition to microaggressions and “not being given the opportunity to advance as quickly as others.”
“So I do think that the study pretty much reflects the day-to-day experiences of what Black women go through,” she said.
What needs to be done to fix this?
It shouldn’t be up to Black women to fix these biases. Everyone has a responsibility to make a work team inclusive and welcoming.
What the study shows is that it’s not just managers who can help or hurt a Black employee in succeeding — their peers can make a huge difference, too. The study found that having more Black co-workers on a team did significantly decrease the turnover of Black women.
“Seemingly neutral practices around staffing and promotion that rely on peers and networking can have a negative impact on equity at work,” Linos said. “We need more research on how white employees can adjust their behaviour to ensure they don’t contribute to existing racialised and gendered dynamics at work.”
One thing that white co-workers could be doing to start addressing these biases? Understanding that Black women may be having a radically different and worse experience than them at their company.
“The first step is to acknowledge that improvements to workplace outcomes for one group (e.g. White women) doesn’t automatically translate to other groups (e.g. Black women),” Linos wrote.
Another step could be actually getting to know them.
“One of the breakdowns of these barriers is just genuinely getting to know the other person,” Brown told HuffPost. She said allies of Black hires should ask them to lunch or have a one-on-one with them, like peers have done for her when she’s been the only Black woman on a team.
But ultimately, it’s up to companies to not just hire Black women, but retain them by creating a workplace where they can succeed at the same rate as their white peers.
“Nothing about this is surprising. We know all of this,” Brown said of the study’s findings. “And it’s important for companies to be aware of these experiences that Black women are facing. It’s like, ‘OK, what are you going to do about it?’”