Why BIPOC Leadership Development is Important

Many companies today celebrate Black History Month as well as other monthly celebrations that offer opportunities to highlight the contributions of BIPOC employees to their organizations. 

On websites, we see more frequently now that organizations are also spotlighting their DEI (diversity, inclusion, and equity) initiatives through their vision statements, company news, or events.

While these changes may be well-intentioned and good, do they bring about actual outcomes of increased and thriving BIPOC leaders in organizations? The answer is: it’s still inconclusive.

Although discussions about DEI have become more commonplace, BIPOC leadership development still remains a critical issue. This is not because BIPOC employees lack the potential or competencies to become leaders. 

Rather, it’s because of the inequitable barriers that BIPOC employees still face, such as the absence of role models, bias during promotion decisions, relative lack of support, and undue emotional and psychological stresses due to stereotypes and stigma, still persist.

Today, we will take a closer look at why BIPOC leadership is important. This week’s blog is a great primer for our upcoming post focusing on how we can develop BIPOC leadership more intentionally.


The Numbers Speak for Themselves

In 2019, a study found that out of 1,639 board members from 178 corporations across major cities in Canada, just 13 board members were Black (0.79 percent), in stark comparison to white members that held 1,483 spots (91 percent). Other racialized members held 61 spots, while the study was unable to classify some members. 

Meanwhile, according to the most recent census, nearly a tenth of Toronto and 3.5 percent of Canada’s population are Black. 

Another study by Corporate Knights magazine revealed similar results. Just 6 (less than 1 percent) of the 799 senior executives and 4 of the 686 board members at 60 S&P/TSX companies were Black.

These glaring statistics show that there is still much work to be done. While conversations about DEI are becoming more commonplace in organizations, the numbers show how the road to actually diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations is still perplexingly long.

BIPOC Employees Experience Emotional and Psychological Burdens

It’s not just about numbers - it’s also about individual people, their feelings, and mental health on a daily basis at work. 

Research reveals how marginalized people due to stigma and stereotypes can experience belonging uncertainty, stereotype threats, and the pressure to code-switch which can negatively impact their motivation, sense of belonging, performance, and their psychological health.

Belonging uncertainty means that members of socially stigmatized groups feel more uncertain of the quality of their social bonds, and as a result, feel more sensitive to issues of social belonging. According to a study by researchers Walton and Cohen (2007), this belonging uncertainty has detrimental effects on stigmatized people’s sense of fit and potential, as well as their motivation and achievement in group settings.

Stereotype threat, on the other hand, refers to how people may experience decreased motivation, less trust, and underperformance when they perform in settings where their group is negatively stereotyped. More than 400 studies have found that stereotype threat can cause underperformance relative to people’s actual abilities.

These effects can occur from a vicious cycle of negative thoughts, emotions, self-scrutiny over assessment, and self-doubt. While people may try to suppress these emotional responses to focus on the tasks at hand, this suppression can take up needed working-memory resources and undermine executive functioning, leading to a weakened performance on difficult tasks.

Finally, code-switching involves changing one’s speaking style, appearance, behaviour, and expression in ways that will make others feel more comfortable in exchange for fair treatment and opportunities (i.e., leadership positions, employment, etc.). While these adjustments may seem like a professional norm, according to an HBR article on “The Costs of Code-Switching,” this behaviour comes at a great social and psychological cost.

The authors point out how code-switching can cause racialized individuals to experience hostility from members of their racial or ethnic groups - being accused of “acting white.” Because changing behaviours to avoid stereotypes takes hard work and “faking it until you make it,” this process can also deplete cognitive resources, reduce authentic self-expression, and contribute to burnout.

This body of evidence shows that BIPOC employees may not only experience systemic barriers to pursuing leadership at work but emotional ones too that raise the bar that much higher. 

The combination of these systemic and emotional barriers can also create a perpetual cycle. The lack of BIPOC representation in leadership can create feelings of marginalization and stigma for BIPOC employees whose identities are not reflected in leadership. These experiences of marginalization in turn can then impact BIPOC employees’ motivation, mental health, and performance which would exacerbate their lack of representation in leadership even more.

“DEI Work” is Not Enough - Leadership Still Remains Unchanged

Recently, many researchers, journalists, and even DEI practitioners have challenged the ways that companies rely on easy, cheap, and quick-fix solutions to resolve their DEI-related problems. Of course, this includes the lack of BIPOC leadership.

These discussions demonstrate from many perspectives that the needle on increasing the diversity of leadership positions and making BIPOC employees feel included in leadership still largely remains unchanged. Meanwhile, the veil of disguise and inaccurate impressions that opportunities are increasing for BIPOC employees are perpetuated due to the noise about DEI.

Many examples can be seen in Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev’s influential HBR article “Why Diversity Programs Fail” (2016). In the article, Dobbin and Kalev discuss how “most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity,” despite an increasing number of businesses showing care about diversity publicly. 

As reasons, the authors mention how many “mandatory diversity training” programs show no effects. Policies like hiring tests and performance ratings implemented to reduce bias and make fair promotional decisions can also lead to “cherry-picking” test results that amplify bias or using performance reviews to justify discrimination while having a litigation shield.

Three years after Dobbin and Kalev’s article in 2019, author, journalist, and professor Pamela Newkirk pointed out how people of colour still remain acutely underrepresented in the most influential fields, despite “diversity” having become a lucrative industry. She provides evidence and data in her convincing book, Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Promise.

Most recently, popular DEI practitioner Lily Zheng has also recounted her story of how an organization executive had offered her $15,000 to do a 60-minute talk on diversity despite being warned that this talk would have comparably limited results in comparison to other initiatives. This story is shared in her recent influential book DEI: Deconstructed: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing It Right (2022).

What these authors and many more advocate for is not for the absence of DEI initiatives in organizations but for more intentional ones that bring about measurable results and meaningful change. 

In the case of BIPOC leadership, this means concrete policies and development strategies that not only allow BIPOC employees to arrive at leadership positions but allow them to thrive

Organizational leaders should not be dissuaded from building more impactful leadership-development opportunities for BIPOC employees from the guise of DEI initiatives expanding if such initiatives are not achieving the results that they are intended to produce.

In our next blog post, we will explore how we can develop BIPOC leadership more intentionally. 

While we wait, take the time to review your current development strategies for BIPOC employees as well as the data that supports why those strategies are needed in your organization. 

If training is missing, consider THG’s Visible Leadership program - a purpose-built space for BIPOC employees to come together, discuss their challenges, and build authentic leadership skills. Contact us to learn more about the program and find out whether this program is right for the needs of your organization.

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