Written by Sophie Williams
Sophie Williams is an anti-racism advocate, activist and author. In her new book, Millennial Black: The Ultimate Guide For Black Women At Work, she examines a concept that every woman knows – that you have to work twice as hard for half as much.
The following is an extract from Millennial Black: The Ultimate Guide For Black Women At Work, by Sophie Williams.
Do you remember your parents sitting you down for The Talk? Depending on your race, there are two different things you could be thinking of now. If you’re not Black, you’re most likely thinking of an uncomfortable chat about sex, that came either too early or too late and made you squirm in your seat.
If you’re Black, The Talk probably brings up a different memory for you. You’re most likely remembering an equally uncomfortable conversation with your parents about race – or more specifically, about how the world would be different, harder, and more dangerous for you, because of your race. That’s The Talk I’m talking about.
The knowledge that we need to be better, work harder, do more is ingrained in us from our childhoods. We are aware that a lot of our lives we will be overlooked in favour of our whiter, male peers. The eyes of the world are on us for every mistake and every slip-up along the way.
Every Black person growing up in the West knows about ‘twice as hard for half as much’.
There are differences of opinion about when the right time to talk to children about it is, or if talking to them about it at all does more harm than good. Some who choose to have the conversation have it young, building it into a narrative of continued conversation over a course of years. Others choose to wait until the teenage years to have one frank conversation about stacked odds, systemic oppression and the dangers of simply walking through the world with Black skin. Others still choose to bypass the conversation entirely, not wanting to cause undue worry or pressures in their children’s lives.
In the end, I don’t think it matters when, or even if, our parents chose to give us this early lesson in unfairness and disparity, because whether via the playground, TV shows or some kind of cultural osmosis, by the time we reach our teens or early adulthood, we’re all more than familiar with the message that we have to work twice as hard as our white peers. Not to get the same, but to get half as much.
This talk is given to children of all genders, and so when we look specifically at Black females, it’s easy to see how the odds, already stacked against us, get multiplied in the worst ways.
As we know, Black women’s problems can’t be broken down into ‘just’ Black problems or ‘just’ women’s problems, they are always, and inseparably, the multiplication of them both – everything that holds white women back from having equal representation at the most senior levels of the workplace also holds back Black women. Everything that prevents Black men from stepping into the boardroom is also a barrier to Black women. So, maybe it’s more than twice as hard, once we start to consider the role that our intersectional identities have.
Not the cheeriest, I know. But I did say I was going to tell you the truth.
“Where are these invisible Black women, and what are they doing? The answer is simple: they’re breaking their backs working in low-paying, unstable, disrespected roles”
If you’re a Black woman, take a second to think. How often do you feel lazy? I don’t know about you, but I feel lazy pretty much all of the time. On one level I know this is absurd – my work sees me working my office hours, and then working from my phone, checking emails and Slack messages from bed at both ends of the day, the first and last things I do every day. I have co-founded a non-profit, I speak on panels and at universities, and mentor people. I paused this book and put out a whole second (first) book in record time, in the middle of a global pandemic.
I’m renovating a flat (with my partner, by which I mean we’re actually, personally doing the physical work of knocking down and rebuilding walls – which, it turns out, is hard), and I’m a very active and invested partner and friend. And yet. And yet I feel lazy. Recently, my good friend Rory told me that my ambition was one of the things he admired most about me – ‘Really?’ I asked. ‘I don’t feel that way at all.’
Now you’ve thought about how often you feel lazy (I bet it’s a lot), think about what you do. At work, at home, as a side hustle, as a friend, partner or member of your community. So then, why do we feel lazy? I think it’s because we’ve been socialised to be busy. We’ve been socialised to be grinding and hustling and getting that bag, because we know both that the odds are stacked, and it’s on us to make our own dreams come true through hard work. Which is a lot to take on.
But Black women do take it on – 63 per cent of Black women self-report as being ‘very ambitious about their careers’ (versus 51 per cent of white women and 55 per cent of white men), but are under no illusion that the road ahead is going to be an easy one for them, with 69 per cent believing that they will have to work harder than their peers if they’re going to be able to advance.
Black women’s labour participation
Black women are no strangers to working.
In America they have, in fact, ‘always had the highest levels of labour market participation, regardless of their age, marital status’, and whether or not they have children. It seems that this has been true as far back as 1880: according to research into the female labour force, 73.3 per cent of single Black women worked, a rate much higher than their white counterparts, only 23.8 per cent of whom worked. Whilst this participation shrunk after marriage to 35.4 per cent, it still remained much higher than married white women at the time, only 7.3 per cent of whom worked.
Despite this, Black women have not been able to make the same strides in professional standing as white women. I believe this has to do with a large number of factors, including the types of work that were, and remain, open to Black women professionally.
What does it mean that Black women are a large part of the workforce, but notably absent from well-respected, well-paying, high-level roles? Where are these invisible Black women, and what are they doing? The answer is simple: they’re breaking their backs working in low-paying, unstable, disrespected roles. And that’s where they’ve always been.
What can be done?
Understanding systemic prejudice and the true unevenness of the playing field doesn’t mean we should give up.
Throwing our hands in the air has never been an option for marginalised people. Instead, we have always needed to find ways to navigate these spaces. That’s exactly what people are trying to do when they prepare young Black people to work twice as hard for half as much – they’re not saying that they like it, or that it’s the way things should be.
They’re saying it is the truth that they have found of the world that they’re living in, and they want to give their children the best possible chances, and tools, to make the most of the system they find themselves in. While I see the intention – what parent doesn’t want to set up their child for the best possible success? – I think it places an unrealistic and unnecessary burden on the shoulders of Black women.
Instead, I think we need to solve this problem by coming at it from the other side, by being clear about what businesses must do in order to tackle structural and systemic prejudice in their workforces, and remove the need for us to prepare our children to work twice as hard for half as much in the first place.
If you’re a senior manager, CEO, COO or board member, I’m looking at you. You have the power and the responsibility to make real, long-term structural change in your businesses, and your industries. And, if the moral case for making this change doesn’t move you, then know this – by limiting the opportunities of Black women and marginalised people, businesses limit the contributions that these people can make to the success of those businesses, ultimately causing those businesses to be less successful.
By creating clearer, more equitable pathways to success, business leaders improve their own prospects, and those of people from marginalised backgrounds, meaning there is not only a clear moral imperative to improve the system, but also a tangible business case.
This extract is taken from Millennial Black: The Ultimate Guide For Black Women at Work by Sophie Williams, published by HQ on 15 April, £16.99.
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