‘Mediocre’ managers stifling black professional women's careers, study suggests

Businesses need to embrace inclusive leadership style at all levels to avoid ‘mirrortocracy’, report authors say

Black women in professional jobs are finding that their careers are stagnating under “mediocre” managers, with many feeling they need to work twice as hard as their peers to be recognised, according to a report.

The research, conducted by the London School of Economics (LSE), also found evidence that managers were hiring candidates based on their own image, creating what the researchers dubbed a “mirrortocracy”.

In-depth interviews with 38 black women, all of whom worked across the financial and professional services sectors, found that seven in 10 believed they were being paid less than their comparable peers, with more than 10 per cent reporting pay gaps as high as 30 per cent.

On top of this, almost two-thirds reported difficulties being their authentic selves at work, and felt forced to change their persona to fit in with their company’s culture, while 45 per cent said that despite attempts to conform to their firm’s standards of dress and hair, they still experienced negative encounters with colleagues.

Of the women, 92 per cent said they wanted to see systemic change within their workplaces.

Erika Brodnock, research officer at the Inclusion Initiative at LSE, said that black women working in finance, big tech and professional services often simultaneously feel like the “most visible” as the only black women in the room, while also feeling invisible because they are unable to be their authentic selves at work.

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“Black women have for far too long been overlooked, and as a result are consistently missing from the industry’s c-suites,” she said, calling for data-driven change to increase the number of black women on boards.

Grace Lordan, co-author of the study, added that managers across all levels of business needed to “embrace an inclusive leadership style because they’re certain it’s better for their own objectives.”

“Until inclusive leadership is embraced by managers at all levels, we are stuck in a compliance phase where audits and monitoring can help ensure that black women aren’t left behind because of mirrortocracy,” she said.

LSE’s report calls for greater transparency on pay and promotions for black women working in big tech, financial and professional services to counteract managers’ negative biases.

Geraldine Healy, professor emeritus of employment relations at Queen Mary University of London, said that while this was important research, “sadly its findings are not new”. 

“Studies over the years, including our own, have found that for black women being overlooked for promotions, facing moving goal posts in promotion and job applications, and being asked to train a successful applicant for a job which they failed to get are recurrent experiences,” she said. 

“The LSE report is welcome as it is vital that a light is continually shined on these organisational inequalities,” Healy added.

Sandra Kerr CBE, race director at Business in the Community, added that black women face the brunt of low pay scales in business, and that it was important for ethnicity pay gap reporting to be introduced.

“Black female employees shouldn’t have to work twice as hard just to be noticed, and we need employers to recognise talent and give promotion where it is due,” she said.