Opinion: The Workplace Is Making Black Women Sick. Here's How To Make It Healthier.

Stressed black businesswoman working on a laptop in an office alone (Photo: Delmaine Donson via Getty Images)
Stressed black businesswoman working on a laptop in an office alone (Photo: Delmaine Donson via Getty Images)

Stressed black businesswoman working on a laptop in an office alone (Photo: Delmaine Donson via Getty Images)

There’s a growing chasm between the incomes of Black women and white men.

This year’s Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, the date that symbolizes how far Black women must work into the current year to match what white men made the year before, was on Sept. 21 ― more than a month later than last year’s. The most recent analysis found that Black women earn just 58 cents for every dollar paid to white men. That’s five cents lower than the previous year’s data.

But even more disturbing than the widening pay disparities is that the stress of discrimination in the workplace is making many Black women physically sick.  It’s time for corporate America to address workplace inequities that are especially harmful to the wellness of Black women.

Workplace discrimination impacts all aspects of Black women’s health ― physical, mental and financial. This is a crisis that must be solved, and it will take a data-driven, methodical, multi-year strategy to do so.

That starts with being honest about the direness of the situation. Black women often rank among the least healthy populations when compared to Americans in other demographics. They suffer from obesity, hypertension and pregnancy-related deaths at disproportionately higher rates than nearly any other community across the country.

These differences are not due to genetics or biology, but are the result of experiencing chronic stress from inequitable systems, structural barriers and, most of all, unfair workplace environments.

I know this all too well. Though I have a doctoral degree, a master’s degree in behavioral science and health education, and more than 15 years of experience in the public health sector, I have experienced countless instances when my decisions had to be affirmed by a white voice.

I have personally experienced the trauma of racism and gender discrimination and the impact it has had on my health and productivity.

And I’m not alone. Nearly half of Black women say they experience racism most often in the workplace. Black women experience a greater variety of microaggressions compared to women of other races and ethnicities. According to a 2020 Lean Inreport on Black women in corporate America, they are more likely to have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise and less likely to have managers showcase their work or advocate for new opportunities for them ― including opportunities to manage people and projects. The report additionally states that Black women are also less likely to report that their manager helps them navigate organizational politics or balance work and personal life.

The Black Women’s Health Imperative is one organization that helps business leaders address these injustices. After all, the alarming reality is that the impact of workplace racism goes well beyond our paychecks ― it is threatening Black women’s very lives. Racial discrimination leads to chronic stress and elevated cortisol, a stress hormone in our blood. Such repeated activation of the body’s stress response can result in chronic inflammation on a cellular level. One study estimated that, at ages 49-55, Black women are 7.5 years “older” on a biological level than their white counterparts.

Chronic stress and inflammation can increase the risk of developing cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and even neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. It also has a profound impact on mental health, making it more likely that Black women will develop mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and PTSD.

In addition to the physiological and mental toll, these factors can keep Black women from being active, dynamic contributors in their professional development ― or participating in the workforce altogether. According to the latest government data, between July and August, 45,000 Black women left the labor force. August marked the third straight month in which Black women’s workforce participation rate decreased.

Not only are Black women leaving the workforce, but those who remain are less likely to be promoted to upper management positions. Black women are underrepresented in leadership positions — they make up just 4% of total management positions, and make up less than 2% of positions for vice presidents and above.

Business executives have a role in fixing these inequities. They can start by recognizing that roughly a third of Black women workers feel a lack of alignment with their employer’s diversity, equity and inclusion policies, according to research from The Black Women’s Health Imperative.

Realigning those policies ― and developing robust, quantifiable solutions to the discrimination Black women disproportionately endure ― starts with research-backed trainings and initiatives that center on Black voices and are informed by the historical context of racial and gender bias.

Corporate leaders should ensure they have a way to measure their progress ― while bearing in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ending racism in the office. Overly general or shallow training can quickly backfire, harming the very employees they aim to help.

The Fair Work Initiative, a program that helps executives create equitable workplaces, is informed by research centered on the voices of Black women workers. The data can help companies accurately identify the challenges specific to their organization. And, in turn, develop customizable solutions ― including training and wellness toolkits ― to empower Black women in the workplace.

Finally, it shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of Black women to solve racism. While it’s important that Black women can provide their input on any new anti-racist practices in their workplace, they should not have to be involved in implementing them ― unless they choose to do so.

Current diversity, equity and inclusion strategies have largely failed in their mission to produce effective results in working environments. It’s time for business leaders to transform the experience of Black women in the workplace. With intersectional, evidence-based methods leading the way, they can create safe and healthy spaces for Black women to work, contribute and thrive.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.