Kamala Harris’s ascent to US vice president marked a much-needed high point for many last year, with lots of headlines understandably focusing on the fact that she is the first woman, and the first black and Asian American to hold this role. However, a recent report from Time’s Up Now analysed the media coverage and found a quarter of stories included at least one racist or sexist stereotype. The report highlights “the persistence of sexist and racist biases in both media and politics, and the unique blend of both that black women experience – a combination dubbed ‘misogynoir’”.
Misogynoir recognises the specific type of discrimination black women face and, although this has been occurring for centuries, it was only given a name in 2010 by queer black feminist Moya Bailey. Grounded in intersectionality, misogynoir is still in its infancy as a concept and, as such, many businesses are not alive to the issues and even what this particular type of discrimination can look like.
HR managers first need to be aware of how misogynoir plays out in the workplace. We see it often occurring through a series of microaggressions, which can be harder to recognise as they are often dressed up as harmless jokes or banter. For example, talking about a black woman’s hair, asking to touch it or, more menacingly, attributing a black woman showing emotion as fulfilling the 'angry black woman' trope are some of the harms that can be enacted in the workplace.
These instances don't just result in offence, repeated exposure to discrimination has been found to create adverse health effects in a phenomenon known as weathering. Opening up the conversation about this issue is vital – until there is a base level of understanding about misogynoir and its impact there is little opportunity to tackle it.
It is also important that any discussions or training about this issue centre black female employees – they must be included in the conversation. Acknowledging the effects of misogynoir on black women equips employees with not just the knowledge, but also the language, to express the problem and consider solutions.
Discrimination can often occur before black women even have an opportunity to enter the business. A recruitment programme that opens the job up to candidates with different backgrounds and then ensures unconscious bias doesn’t impact the hiring process should be prioritised. For example, check the language of the job advert and ensure it uses inclusive language.
It’s also essential to use different channels to advertise the job – or if your business has lines into certain schools or universities for graduate opportunities, widen out this pool so you’re reaching a broader group of people with different backgrounds. Utilising artificial intelligence in the recruitment process can also sometimes help weed out unconscious bias.
According to recruitment company Harver, KPMG hired 44 per cent more women thanks to an AI tool. Employers could consider implementing diverse interview panels that improve the candidate experience while providing growth opportunities for existing employees.
Once in role black women can face difficulties in progressing through the organisation. A lack of representation in senior business positions creates negative feelings with respect to belonging as well as limited opportunities to select role models.
Last summer, a report by Business in the Community, Race for the Top: Revisited, revealed that black employees hold just 1.5 per cent of top management roles in the UK, a number that has pretty much remained static since 2014. Mentoring programmes and sponsorship by decision makers can be very helpful in providing younger employees with an ‘in’ to senior management and subsequently open up opportunities to showcase their talents and abilities.
Likewise, reverse mentoring, where a junior black woman, for example, mentors a senior white professional in the business, can help give an insight into the realities of discrimination and the importance of a more inclusive culture.
The idea of intersectionality and the fact that an individual can face a particular type of discrimination, or more discrimination, because of their personal mix of gender, ethnicity and sexuality, for example, is not yet fully recognised and therefore not a firm element of many diversity and inclusion policies. That needs to change – although the term misogynoir has only been coined in the last 10 years, and recognised by some businesses only very recently, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t always been a problem. The statistics sadly speak for themselves. However, committing to a programme of education, training and action, recognising this issue can help a HR team make great strides in stamping out any discrimination.
Stuart Affleck is director and Bianca Moodie account manager at Brook Graham from Pinsent Masons' Vario