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The black glass ceiling – what it is and how HR can smash it

For years the expression BAME has been used to describe people with ethnicity that is not white. It was widely accepted and often at times used by members of the black community themselves.

It has however become increasingly unacceptable because it fails to recognise the differences between ethnic groups of people, the underrepresentation of the black person and that of the black woman. 

The reality is that black women have been and continue to be left behind, regardless of industry.

The business case for diversity in organisation is one that has been wheeled out over and over again. Some of the most renowned senior leaders, CEOs, boards and chairs of organisations in the FTSE have come out and publicly advocated the case for more diverse teams, professions and boards. Some have also signed up to charters and rules of engagement published by reputable organisations such as Business in the Community (BITC).  

In 2017 the Parker Review set out a voluntary target for the nation’s FTSE 350 – to have at least one member of their boards from an ethnically diverse background.  That target has not been met. 

The Hampton Alexander Review in 2016 set a voluntary target for FTSE 100-350 boards to have 33% of their boards as women. Progress has been made on this on FTSE 100 boards. As reported in the Cranfield University 2020 female FTSE board report, the percentage of women on FTSE 100 Boards is now 34.5%. However, of that, less than 3% of those women would be described as black women. 

The statistics in business in general are even more stark, with a report in the Guardian in June 2020 stating that only 1.5% of senior positions held in UK businesses today are held by black people – this has hardly changed since 2014.

In an open letter in The Sunday Times,  a group of leading companies publicly called for organisations to address the systemic racism that exists within them.


What is the black glass ceiling?

The black glass ceiling is those barriers – hidden and non-hidden – that stand in the way of the black woman progressing in organisation and being considered fairly for promotion and positions of responsibility. 

The black woman faces a double challenge in terms of barriers - her gender and her race.  In addition, the usual indicators of motivation and hope – such as role models, advocates, sponsors and mentors, focused leadership and management development provided in the workplace – fail to address the specific issues that women who are black must deal with to break through the ceiling of promotion and advancement. 

Lauded diversity and inclusion training is often targeted at the white person in organisations and, while there is some, though increasingly debatable merit, in this type of training, very little focused and strategic leadership and career development is provided.    

The Gender and Race Benchmark of 2014, published by BITC, stated that women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be overlooked for promotion than white women.

The current underrepresentation of black women in senior positions and on company boards is evidence that this is still the case today and even decision-making forums and the makeup of communities designed to promote the advancement of women in the workplace, such as the City women’s network and the 30% Club, are predominantly made up of white women.

Race in the workplace:

Is using umbrella terms such as BAME, LGBT+ and disabled hindering inclusion efforts?

Black Voices Report renews call for mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting

BAME progression: The employer's or individual's responsibility?

What can HR do?

HR’s role in addressing this problem within an organisation is one of the most important. In the immediate term, it can take these three impactful actions:

  1. Educate on the plight and nature of the problem, as if HR's lives depend on it.  Examine the data in the organisation and industry and identify trends, bottle necks and pain points.

  2. Conduct some honest and critical self-examination as a profession. For example, in what way have the processes, systems and ways of working – as well as the criteria for promotion that we’ve promoted, implemented and applauded – been barriers to the equality of opportunity and advancement of the black person and woman in my organisation?

    Having done this thorough review and self-examination, implement decisive action to address the gaps and challenges raised with time scales, targets and timely reviews – while educating the wider organisation.

  3. Proactively promote and enable the structured development of the black woman in your organisation. With the support of your board and your CEO, prize black women out of their current positions and put them on a leadership programme alongside other black women who can be role models and a strong support network.   

Underpin this with a plan to enable a promotion within one or two years of completion of that programme and assign them a mentor and also a sponsor. Proactively manage their careers and celebrate their success.

The black glass ceiling may not be demolished completely in the short term. It would be unrealistic to assume that endemic and systemic racism or a dominant culture in an organisation can be immediately transformed. However, the first proactive and active steps can be taken.

The ceiling can be dented.  It needs only the imagination of pioneering HR leaders and the willingness to do the right thing in ensuring that not just some, but all of the talent available in an organisation – and to an organisation –  has an equal opportunity to be selected, to be accepted, to belong and to progress in their professional careers.


Yetunde Hofmann is a board level executive leadership coach and mentor and founder of Solaris.