Busting Bias: Survive or Thrive

“Black women are treading water at work, and we deserve more.”

by Ericka Hines

How do I know that there are still obstacles to fulfilling our potential? Because I am a Black woman who thinks back to when I worked at organizations
and remembers how much I needed to twist and change myself to fit in,

look the part, and play along to get along. I remember many “coffee walks” and errands with my Black women colleagues that were, in truth, problem-solving, peer-coaching sessions. Because I have heard them say it in closed-door conversations, focus groups, and surveys. Because I wrote the report on it.

I know because, as a DEI strategist, I have done many trainings where I have raised difficult issues about racism and sexism and had Black women pull me aside and give me their own stories of encountering this in their positions.

As a researcher, I kept asking myself: How can we help Black women thrive in the workplace?

For many of us, our lives (outside the workplace) are full of meaning, community, and joy. That is where we experience thriving. We spend our time in community with family and close friends. We use that time to “fill our cup.” And we often draw on that cup throughout the week at work. But what if we worked in atmospheres that helped us thrive? Everyday. Everyone deserves to thrive at work.

Many workplaces trying to figure out how to become more diverse, inclusive, and equitable often have not given much thought to how to help people thrive. At the same time, I’ve watched more organizations start using the term thriving without understanding what it truly means, how it differs from DEI, and how to create an environment conducive to thriving for anyone, especially for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).

Research shows that there are characteristics inherent to thriving in the workplace. A group of researchers at the University of Michigan developed a “socially embedded model” that defined thriving at work as “the psychological state in which individuals experience both a sense of vitality and a sense of learning at work.” The combined sense of vitality (positive feeling ascribed to having available energy) and learning (feeling that one can gain and apply information and skills) conveys a sense of movement toward personal development.

While this concept of thriving is helpful, it doesn’t consider the implicit biases and systemic inequities that BIPOC women face that directly impact their ability to thrive.

That is because Black women, at all levels of organizations, have to navigate workplace structures and cultures that were not initially built for us. This is a reality made clear in many implicit and explicit ways—through pay gaps, performance and promotion bias, a mentor and sponsorship gap, daily microaggressions, and discrimination.

From researching thriving at work for almost two years, I now know that thriving in the workplace goes far beyond power, pay, and upward mobility. Even when Black women achieve the pinnacle of traditionally defined “success,” we are still not thriving. We can’t hope to create thriving workplaces if we haven’t heard what Black women need to thrive.

It’s time to listen. DW

Ericka Hines is the founder of Every Level Leadership (ELL), which works to deepen awareness and analysis of the realities that Black women experience in the workplace. In 2022, ELL issued its Black Women Thriving report, a blueprint of recommendations for developing leaders at every level of an organization.

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* This article was originally published here