Women of Color Are the Untapped Talent Force in Business, New Google-sponsored Study Finds

·9 min read

The world of work looks nothing like what many would have expected a few years ago. Offices are struggling to be filled, employees are struggling to be fulfilled and younger workers aren’t putting up with anything that resembles exclusion or inequity.

As such, people are leaving their jobs — or the entire workforce. But, according to a new study, there’s a category of talent that still remains largely untapped but may be uniquely suited to drive progress in a climate that demands greater cultural sensitivity: women of color.

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Women of color, according to a new study titled “Untapped Women of Color: The Talent Force Multiplier,” by business leaders and co-authors Bonita C. Stewart and Jacqueline Adams, sponsored by Google, are force multipliers, meaning they have the ability to help organizations achieve goals and exceed expectations.

But first, companies need to hire them.

“The reality of women of color in business today is that they are incredibly prepared and actively seeking expanded opportunities,” said Stewart, who is also vice president of global partnerships at Google and board partner at the tech company’s Gradient Ventures fund, which is investing in the future of AI. “Their level of confidence and ambition is unstoppable despite the inherent scrutiny. Sixty-eight percent of Black Millennials and 73 percent of Latine Millennials felt they could find another job ‘easily.’

“The cautionary tale is actually for managers who neglect to create a more equitable lens for assessing talent as they recruit and promote within their organizations,” she continued. “Jackie and I are advocating for increased capability training to move managers from IQ and EQ to developing CQ — ‘cultural intelligence’ to recognize the true ‘untapped’ talent and potential within their organizations.”

Despite promises of the past two years to do more/better/faster when it comes to diversity, the study found that women of color are still overwhelmingly “onlys.”

Forty-six percent of Black women surveyed for the 2021 study said they are always or frequently the only person of their race in a professional setting. This survey marks the third by Stewart and Adams, the first of which appeared in the book they co-authored, “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive,” published in 2020 with findings from 2019. In 2020, that number was 46 percent among Black women and in 2019 it was 47 percent, proving two years has done little to change their professional presence.

Among Latine women, 41 percent identified as “onlys” (compared with 36 percent in 2020 and 41 percent in 2019). For Asian women, 42 percent find themselves racially alone at work (compared to 40 percent in 2020 and 39 percent in 2019). To add context, just 15 percent of white women could say they were the only person of their race in a professional setting (this compares to 16 percent in 2020 and 15 percent in 2019).

And when it comes to “generational diversity,” a phrase the co-authors coined to address generational variations when it comes to workplace diversity, the problem of onlyness is worse among Millennials. Fifty-five percent of Black Millennial women are onlys at work, in contrast with the 46 percent average across generations. Forty-five percent of Latine women don’t see others who look like them on the job and 44 percent of Asian women said the same (this contrasts with 21 percent of white Millennial women).

The spikes in Millennial onlys, according to the study, should “raise new alarms for managers.”

“The U.S. Census reports that Millennial and Gen Z workers of color are about to become the majority — within the next six years. The 2021 findings about Onlys further validates the co-authors’ prior warnings about the need for managers to take generational diversity seriously,” the study noted. “Now is the time to hire these younger women of color, to look for their potential and to promote them, to make them feel welcome. The time to tap this untapped pool of talent is now. These women of color are assets, especially since this survey’s findings continue to show that Black and Latine Millennial women are the most innovative, the ‘first to know’ when something new or cutting-edge in technology is released.”

When it comes to innovation, among the nearly 4,300 respondents to the survey, 44 percent of Black Millennials in particular said they’re always the first to know when something new or cutting-edge comes out. Forty-two percent of Latine women and 33 percent of Asian women said the same, while 38 percent of white Millennial women believed that to be true of themselves.

With increasing confidence and knowledge of their talent, many women of color in business feel in control of their professional lives and willing to leave what no longer serves them. Sixty-seven percent of Black women said they could find another job relatively easily, compared to 65 percent of Latine women, 65 percent of Asian women and 65 percent of white women.

Though it will come as little surprise to those who continue to experience it, systemic bias remains a rampant plague. Sixty percent of Black women strongly agreed that systemic bias is widespread against people of color, compared to 41 percent of Latine women, 34 percent of Asian women and 38 percent of white women. Among Black Millennial women, there seems to be a brighter ray of hope: 53 percent said systemic bias was widespread in 2021, which fell from 68 percent in 2020.

While both Black and Latine women reported being much more comfortable speaking up about issues of race (Asian women and white women both became less comfortable from 2020 to 2021), 32 percent of Black women and 25 percent of Latine women still feel their contributions are viewed more skeptically because of their race (compared to 21 percent of Asian women and 16 percent of white women who felt the same).

What’s worth noting, among the findings, is that Asian women reported “vastly different experiences” than other women of color. Their career satisfaction is waning: only 30 percent of Asian women (down from 39 percent in 2020) feel they have the opportunity to do meaningful work (compared to 51 percent of Black women and 47 percent of Latine women). And despite that, fewer Asian women surveyed felt they’d be able to leave their work in the next year (23 percent compared to 34 percent of Black women and 29 percent of Latine women).

“Where job promotions are concerned, Asian women were most likely to feel as though they’ve stagnated, while all other women of color were much more likely to say they’re growing,” the study noted. “The gap between Asian and Black/Latinx women has widened over the last year.”

Just 13 percent of Asian women feel prospects for people of color are headed in a positive direction, compared to 24 percent of Black women and 26 percent of Latine women. Only 7 percent of Chinese American women specifically felt positive about prospects for people of color.

“Given the pessimism expressed by Asian American female desk workers, especially those of Chinese heritage, it is hard to ignore the impact of COVID-19 and the sharp increase in hate crimes against the Asian American community,” according to the report. “For coworkers and managers, the implications of this data are straightforward. Empathy and increased cultural awareness, creating a sense of psychological safety in the workplace and beyond, are of paramount importance for the well being and prosperity of all.”

Managers are having to adjust to a lot — and quickly — in this new climate. But they won’t be able to afford not to.

“Underlying societal and business forces are all contributing to the speed with which managers are having to adjust. And these trends continue to support an increased return on investment for companies that embrace and nurture the burgeoning pool of women of color,” the study noted. “Increasingly, the untapped talent of women of color is being seen as the force multiplier for progress and profitability in the U.S. and global economies.”

If emotional intelligence is what leaders have needed for success in their roles — not to mention employee performance and profitability — over the last quarter century, Stewart and Adams argue that now it’s about cultural intelligence, which they define as having “the ability to adapt to new cultural settings.”

While both are needed, the report says: “People with high emotional intelligence can pick up on the emotions, wants and needs of others. People with high cultural intelligence are attuned to the values, beliefs and styles of communication of people from different cultures. They use this knowledge to help them relate to others with empathy and understanding.”

What are some action items for companies looking to succeed with this cultural sensitivity and thus, the long-term sustainability of their businesses? Assess talent with greater sensitivity to cultural differences; ensure workplace processes are without bias to reduce excess scrutiny; deliver constructive communication, and engage Black and Latine women in creating innovative solutions, special projects, and seeking different perspectives, according to the report.

To tap into the talent among women of color, the study stresses the need for companies to ensure their leaders understand what it takes to nurture them and give their voices power within the organization. It will also take women of color supporting one another within the workplace, as well as continuing to move full steam ahead despite systemic realities.

“In the next year, I expect to see continued progress for women of color in business,” Adams said. “Google’s sponsorship of the research, under the leadership of the company’s chief diversity officer Melonie Parker, is validation of our findings about generational diversity and the importance of increased training for managers. Our Millennials express boundless confidence and are acting on their convictions. With each passing day I see anecdotally more evidence of women of color heeding Bonita’s and my central message and we are indeed teaming up. I am buoyed by poet Maya Angelou’s optimism in the face of challenges: ‘But still, like air, I’ll rise.’”