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If You’re Going to ‘Lean In,’ Do it for the Women of Color on Your Team

Today marks International Malala Day, which honors the birthday of Pakistani education activist and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. Malala’s advocacy for girls’ education on the local, national, and international levels has spanned over a decade, with Malala Fund investing in education activists and advocates.

Malala’s dedication and commitment to ensuring that girls of color worldwide have access to quality education and safety represents the advocacy that all women of color deserve, particularly in the workplace. It can be a jarring and discouraging experience for many women of color to enter the working world and suddenly find themselves within an organization or company they are entirely unsupported by. An inner tension is created when they struggle to thrive in racist working environments and go without leadership's guidance, mentorship, and support.

Studies have shown that Black women and all women of color leaders are less supported at work and receive fewer professional development opportunities than White people. Women of color can be as ambitious and 'lean in' as much as they want to, yet when faced with bias and racism from their organization's leadership, that ambition can still lead to nowhere.

As a coach for women of color leaders, and through the Authentically Me Fellowship that I lead with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultant and strategist Rachel Vicente, I've heard countless stories about the toll this lack of support takes on them. Women of color are often raised and indoctrinated with the belief that we must be twice as good to get half as much– an ideology that can lead to depression, anxiety, and diminished self-esteem and confidence. But what if we could take a different, more affirming path?

For companies and organizations grappling with how to support women of color on your team, I recommend these three steps:

  1. Be a Mentor: Mentorship can be a saving grace for women of color professionals across all stages of their careers. If you are a supervisor who works directly with women of color on your team, you can shift their experience of being micromanaged and unsupported to one that is fulfilling and empowering. Make time on at least a monthly basis to check in with the women of color on your team about their career goals, personal aspirations, and how you can be a bridge to getting them there.

  2. Increase Your Professional Development Budget: Many organizations and companies set aside funds yearly for their staff's professional development. I'm here today to tell you that whatever your budget is, you can consider increasing it. For women of color, finding the right support networks can take years and can be daunting. Support them in that journey by providing material support and access to opportunities to help them advance in their careers.

  3. Make an effort to Connect Authentically: I once had a participant in Authentically. I share that in an introductory lunch with her new (White) supervisor, she was asked what she thought about the Will Smith Oscars incident– a situation that made her feel uncomfortable, and like she was the first Black person she was able to ask about it months after the fact. Taking the time as a leader to connect on non-work-related things authentically can help establish mutual trust and consideration.

As we celebrate Malala today, let's remember how her advocacy can be a blueprint for what it means to show up for women of color in the workplace. Creating the space for them to grow and advance in their careers is a crucial way to dismantle systems of oppression and bias that have denied women of color opportunities to advance for far too long.

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