Professional Black women being held back due to mirrortocracy

Black women have for far too long been overlooked, and as a result are consistently missing from industry's C-suites.
- Erika Brodnock
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A new LSE report calls for greater transparency on pay and promotions for Black women working in financial and professional services and big tech to counteract managers’ negative biases.

The report, endorsed by the 30% Club, documents the experiences of Black professional women who reported dealing with ‘mediocre managers’, who often hire in their own image to reinforce ‘mirrortocracy’ over meritocracy.  The Black women interviewed relayed a sense of needing to work twice as hard to be noticed or given the same opportunities as their peers.

One interviewee gave an example of having a secondment into a more senior role during the absence of a colleague and subsequently applying for the permanent position when it became available. She was turned down and told by her manager that she was not ready for the role. However, she was simultaneously asked to train the person who was hired.

Twenty-one women also reported difficulty in being their authentic selves within their organisations. Their experiences involved changing their persona in order to fit in with a company culture that did not accept them. According to the researchers, “Changing one’s persona on a daily basis takes mental reserves that could be used for valuable tasks within and outside the firm.”

17 women interviewed mentioned that despite their attempts to conform to their firm’s standards of dress and hair, they still experienced negative encounters with colleagues. For example, one woman spoke about being mistaken for cleaning staff by a colleague when immaculately dressed in a full suit. Another spoke about being told that they looked far more professional when their hair is worn straight rather than natural. Many interviewees relayed how much energy they spent on a daily basis deciding whether or not to conform.

In the words of one woman: “If you are able to show up for work without having to worry about how colleagues or clients judge your natural hair……then that is a privilege you can enjoy. Others can’t.”

The study, led by Erika Brodnock and Dr Grace Lordan from The Inclusion Initiative (TII) at LSE, undertook interviews with 38 Black women at various stages in their career across financial and professional services and big technology. It was motivated by a quantitative examination of the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) earlier this year undertaken by Almeida, Brodock and Lordan (2021).  This study highlighted Black women as having the lowest probability of being among the top earners in the UK.

In this new report, sponsored by Mastercard, TII at LSE have now created the TRANSPARENT framework to help Black women secure more equal opportunities. The framework brings together the ideas of the women who participated in the study and provides practical steps for companies to adopt and implement to enable tangible change to take place at pace. It is deliberately action-focused in trying to reduce headwinds and augment tailwinds faced by talented Black women in the three sectors that were explored.  It relies on the introduction of several compliance-based mechanisms. 

Dr Grace Lordan, founder of The Inclusion Initiative and co-author of the study, commented:

“We expect that progress for Black women will be greatly helped by a ‘what gets measured gets done’ philosophy, with greater transparency through audits and monitoring of pay, promotions and ratings.”

Erika Brodnock, Research Officer at The Inclusion Initiative at LSE, commented:

“Black women have for far too long been overlooked, and as a result are consistently missing from industry's C suites, as well as the top 1% of earners. The problems the ‘mirrortocracy’ creates for Black women, their organisations, and the economy at large can no longer be ignored.  We do not need more data, we need more data-driven change that is effectively evaluated and leads to an increase in the number of Black women on boards, leading top tier organisations and reaching their full economic potential.”

Ann Cairns, Executive Vice Chair, Mastercard and Global Chair, 30% Club, commented:

“This revealing research lays bare the extent to which Black women in business have to endure so much extra pressure to be successful. Throughout my career I have often been the only woman, or one of just a few, and I recognised the experiences outlined in the report that cite the effort it takes to try to fit in or make yourself heard. Doing so on top of your actual job can be exhausting. And it makes for bad business when staff aren't able to devote their full efforts to their jobs.”