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Professional black women paid less as careers stagnate, says UK survey

Professional black women in the UK are paid less and have to work twice as hard to be noticed or gain the same opportunities as peers with their careers stagnating in a “mirror-tocracy”, according to research.

Almost three-quarters of black women working in big tech, finance and professional services, said they believed they were being paid less than comparable peers in a London School of Economics and Political Science survey.

More than half reported difficulty in being their “authentic selves” in their organisations, feeling the need to change their persona to fit in with the company culture as they struggle to mirror others because of their contrasting backgrounds, referred by some as a mirror-tocracy

The study also found repeated examples of professional black women being judged on how they looked. In one case, a black woman wearing a suit was mistaken for a cleaner, while another was told she looked more professional when her hair was worn straight rather than left natural.

Erika Brodnock, research officer at the Inclusion Initiative at LSE, said black women working in finance, tech and professional services faced a “most perplexing conundrum” of often being very visible because they were typically the only black women “in the room, while simultaneously being invisible when thinking about their ability to be authentically themselves”.

“[They are] frequently feeling as though they do not truly belong in the seat they have so often worked twice as hard to occupy,” she said, adding that black women have been overlooked for far too long.

Erika Brodnock, research officer at the Inclusion Initiative at LSE © Handout

All of the 38 women interviewed reported facing either significant or severe headwinds when it came to their career. Some 14 described incidents at work involving racism, such as white colleagues being chosen over more qualified and experienced black women, while 15 reported experiencing microaggressions.

About half said that despite their attempts to conform to their company’s standards of dress and hair, they still experienced negative encounters with colleagues, such as colleagues looking to touch their hair.

One woman told the researchers: “If you are able to show up for work without having to worry about how colleagues or clients judge your natural hair . . . don’t have to worry about the mispronunciation of your name, or have to anglicise it to even get through CV vetting, are not in the blind spot of a headhunters firm, or you show up in leadership pipelines, then that is a privilege you can enjoy. Others can’t.”

A separate LSE study earlier this year found that black women in the UK have the lowest probability of being top earners of any group.

Ann Cairns, executive vice chair of Mastercard and global chair of the 30% Club, which lobbies for more women in senior positions, said the new research showed the “extent to which black women in business have to endure so much extra pressure to be successful”.

The research, which was sponsored by Mastercard, put forward a framework to help black women secure more equal opportunities. Study author Grace Lordan, director of the Inclusion Initiative at LSE, said managers across all levels of seniority needed to “embrace an inclusive leadership style”.

Earlier this year, the Fawcett Society said ethnic minority women were “almost invisible from positions of power across both public and private sectors” in the UK.

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