Two in three women of colour forced to hide their personality at work, poll finds

Experts lambast ‘myth of meritocracy’ as research highlights how women of colour face barriers to opportunities at every stage of their career

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Nearly two-thirds of women of colour have been forced to hide aspects of their personality in the workplace, a report has found.

The poll of more than 3,000 women found 61 per cent of women of colour had changed things including the language they used, the topics they talk about, their hairstyle and the food they eat in the workplace.

This included more than one in five (22 per cent) women of colour who said they changed their name in the workplace.

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In comparison, just 44 per cent of white women said they changed aspects of their personality in the workplace.

The findings are part of the Broken Ladders report, the largest representative survey of women of colour in the UK, conducted by the Fawcett Society and the Runnymede Trust.

Of 2,000 women of colour polled for the report, three-quarters (75 per cent) said they experienced racism at work, and more than a quarter (27 per cent) have suffered racial slurs.

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One of the women interviewed for the report, called Matilda, told of how her HR department advised her to “hide how clever I was, as people find that easier to manage and deal with”.

“As long as you conformed to stereotypes and remained passive and compliant, you were deemed a safe and manageable employee. But if like me, you questioned why you were not given access to training… those questions were deemed unwelcome, and I was labelled as ‘aggressive’,” she said.

The report found that women of colour were facing barriers at all stages of their career: half (52 per cent) said they experienced discrimination during recruitment, including being made to feel uncomfortable about their race or cultural background and being asked for ethnicity information outside of monitoring processes.

And while two-thirds (64 per cent) of women of colour said being promoted during their career was important to them (compared to 49 per cent of white women), more than a quarter (28 per cent) have had a promotion blocked by a manager and 42 per cent have been passed over for a promotion despite receiving good feedback (compared to 19 per cent and 27 per cent of white women respectively).

This carried on into leadership and decision making roles: more than a third (34 per cent) of women of colour reported they needed colleagues to vouch for them to have their decisions accepted, compared to less than a quarter (23 per cent) of white women.

The report said all of this had a knock-on effect on wellbeing: two in five (39 per cent) of the women of colour polled said the lack of progression had impacted their wellbeing, compared to 28 per cent of white women, while 43 per cent of women of colour said it led to a loss of motivation.

Jemima Olchawski, CEO of the Fawcett Society, said it was “sickening” how many women of colour have experienced racism at work.

“We just can’t accept this as a society. If we want to be a country where everyone can achieve their potential, to progress and make the most of their talents, then we need serious and concerted action to address this,” she said, adding that given the current skills crisis this was “a waste of potential we can ill afford”.

The report called on employers to implement evidence-based anti-racism action plans with clear targets; to ensure they have clear and transparent reporting processes; and to introduce anti-racism training.

It also encouraged employers to look at their structures and policies to minimise bias and ensure promotion processes had fair and equitable outcomes.

“From school to the workplace, there are structural barriers standing between [women of colour] and the opportunities they deserve,” said Halima Begum, CEO of the Runnymede Trust.

“Women of colour know first-hand the myth of meritocracy, from the mental gymnastics of constantly code switching to being repeatedly passed up for promotion, in 2022 it is high time we invest in them,” she said. “Until we do so, we will continue to lose them as they leave the workplace, resulting in a huge waste of talent.”