This Is What Happens When “Diverse” Companies Are Run By All-White Leadership

Whizy Kim

With Black Lives Matter protests ongoing across the country, many workplaces have been renewing their commitment to diversity and inclusion — and saying that this time, they’re serious. Former and current employees of many companies, including Refinery29, have come forward to relay exactly how those institutions failed to uphold a commitment to diversity and support their Black employees. Before Refinery29 was purchased by Vice Media Group in November of 2019, only one executive among eight was a person of color — the company’s CFO, an Asian woman. Earlier this month, Vice Media Group committed to 50% BIPOC managers by 2024, but has not made a public statement regarding executive leadership.

But why has it taken so long for anti-Black workplaces to be considered an emergency, rather than the standard? By treating diversity as a “nice-to-have” — almost as a generosity to POC — rather than a “must-have,” businesses aren’t just being racist. They’re undermining their ability to operate.

Despite outward-facing support for diversity, the numbers across corporate workplaces — especially at leadership levels — show that Black representation has been tokenistic, with nowhere close to proportionate representation of Black employees in top-level roles. Black and other non-white professionals who are the only representative of their race among peers at work deal with all the stress of being the token with none of the resources to ensure their perspective is heard and implemented. Tokenism is a PR move.

The Center for Talent Innovation released a study at the end of last year showing the big, damning picture of where Black professionals stand within the corporate hierarchy. Among executive and senior-level officials and managers, only 3.2% are Black, despite Black people comprising about 13.4% of the U.S. population. The Fortune 500 list also makes it crystal-clear who in America gets to hold corporate wealth and power. Only four companies among the 500 are led by Black men. Not a single one is led by a Black woman

The fact is, when leadership is only white and male, companies lack the ability to see the world as it really is — everything is filtered through a white male lens. And without diversity among leadership, inclusivity efforts are often short-lived, as it becomes difficult to create a workplace culture that can retain employees of color. It also creates an environment actively harmful to minorities who have no choice but to be at turns silent about their pain, and at other times the token representative for an entire community. There’s no overtime or bonus pay for the energy it takes to project your voice over an entire racial identity.

The Center for Talent Innovation study last year found that while 65% of Black people in corporate America said that they had to work harder than their white counterparts to advance, only 16% of their white colleagues agreed that Black people have had to work harder. Among the Black professionals surveyed, 35% said they intended to leave their current workplace within two years; a quarter said they planned to eventually leave their jobs to start their own ventures, where they would be certain to be in a leadership position.

The burden of being one of the few minorities at work can’t be overstated — and it’s a burden that even the most well-intentioned workplaces will be guilty of, as long as the reins of authority remain in overwhelmingly white, male hands. In the last few weeks, we spoke to several Black professionals about their experiences at workplaces where there are few to no Black people in leadership roles, to highlight how the lack of top-down commitment to anti-Blackness leads to workplace hypocrisy, performative empathy, and the strengthening of tokenism that works against racial equality at work.

Lillian, 26, works in the special events industry. She says that no one in upper management or leadership roles at her company is Black. Of her coworker’s reactions to the most recent Black Lives Matter protests, she says, “They chose to only focus on the looting going on.” In group texts she shared with Refinery29, her coworkers express horror and anger about the damage of businesses near the protests, claiming the movement had turned into mere opportunism. “They basically argued with me when I tried to explain why I was offended by their response,” says Lillian.

“Prior to the damage done these past few days, I haven’t heard many of you discuss the destruction of people in Black and Brown communities effected by years of systematic oppression and police brutality,” she wrote in one reply to the group chat. “Some of you clearly haven’t been touched by this in the ways that I have.”

“They discussed what’s going on as if they were isolated incidents,” she says. “Saying that their family feels bad for what happened to Floyd but don’t excuse the actions they’ve seen.”

She also notes that it wasn’t just colleagues showing a failure of empathy — management also failed to be responsible leaders during a crisis that called for sound judgment and sensitivity. “My boss started the conversation of looting in our DM and stopped responding as frequently to the group message, and just continued to look at what we all were saying without constructive input,” Lillian says. “Only two of my coworkers texted to check on me and apologize for the behavior of those present in the group message.”

Erin, 31, works in human services. Of the 11 top-level managers at her company, she is the only Black person. Her company’s response to BLM? “Silence,” she says. “They’ve ignored events and made no comments. I’d like for my company to acknowledge current events. We work in marginalized communities, but the leadership of the company is homogenous and doesn’t reflect those that we’re serving.”

The silence reflects the kind of organizational inequalities that are baked into many workplaces. “I’ve been here for 4 years, and in my previous role with this company I worked with the white male colleague who outearned me,” she continues. “He left the company a few years ago. In conversations with me, he indicated that he was uncomfortable with the structure of our office; he was very aware of the disparity and wanted to be an ‘ally’ but never used his voice to advocate.”

Nicole, 29, works for a medical device supplier. She estimates there are somewhere between 10 to 20 executives and top-level managers, but none of them are Black. “My company hasn’t said anything internally or externally. I have every reason to believe that they have not made any contribution and that they don’t plan to,” she says. “I would like them to speak up about what is going on the same way that they spoke up and provided resources for COVID-19.”

Mia, 26, works in public health. “We do not have a single Black person who works at the director level or higher,” she says. “The response [to protests] has been really poor. Our CEO issued a poorly put together statement about Black Lives Matter that essentially ignored the point of the movement.” She also talks about how difficult upward mobility can be for Black employees, who are told nebulous things when they ask about advancement — now is never the right time. “I have been denied a promotion because there wasn’t ‘space’ for me to move up,” Mia says. “However, they’ve increased my workload significantly since I began working here. My work is comparable to individuals who work one level up from me and who are making at least $20k more than I do.”

Stephanie, 39, works at a non-profit for preventing gun violence. There are no top-level managers or executives who are Black. “[The non-profit’s response to BLM was] disingenuous, communications fluff with no real stance, and they only shared on a platform that has minimum constituents,” she says. “They haven’t made any commitments. I’m the only Black person that works in the organization and yet I was hired to serve my community only.” 

She has been working at this non-profit for almost three years now. “I’m aware of pay gaps,” she says. “I was underpaid coming in and was only given a raise after begging for one — my boss gave one to everyone since it would only be fair, if I got one, that they got one as well. I have more education and experience, yet I’m treated like I’m the help. They steal my ideas and don’t give me credit, work me beyond what anyone else does. I just came back from medical leave and there was no transition. They had paused my work and just let it wait until I got back.”

Sierra, 21, works for a non-profit in music education. “There are 13 top-level managers and executives at our company,” she says. “None of them are Black.” She says her workplace hasn’t mentioned the protests explicitly. “[They] made a social media post stating their solidarity with the Black community, participated in Black Out Tuesday. I was asked to engage in an internal conversation with the highest-ranking member of the company about the protests, to demonstrate to some constituents how the company was responding to them, but despite my efforts it was quite disorganized and essentially pointless.”

“The other party was constantly redirecting the conversation instead of centering issues of anti-Blackness, and even upper-level management was clearly afraid to say anything about it, so I redirected as best I could,” she says. “The only commitment they’ve made so far is declaring Juneteenth a company-wide holiday.”

Suddenly realizing that they need to talk about race, workplaces without Black leadership are putting the burden of leadership on Black employees who aren’t receiving the salaries of leaders. “I currently make $20 an hour,” says Sierra. “When I first started a year ago, I was an intern and made $14.25/hr. After my title had changed, I continued to be paid at that rate for a while, but my hourly wage was eventually increased to be on par with others who had the same title.”

Sierra isn’t sure if her company is truly sincere about its commitment to anti-racism, even though it has a progressive aim and is well-intentioned. “Our company is certainly among the most forward-thinking in our industry,” she says. “Before the pandemic, we were in the middle of a festival that featured many Black artists and thinkers — most notably Dr. Angela Davis — in over a month’s worth of events about social change.”

“On the other hand,” she continues, “the programs we have that are geared toward serving under-resourced youth have very low retention rates for Black students, and there has been no discussion of that until now. And so far, it has not gone past simply stating that fact.”

Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

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