Blog | 26 October 2022

Code-switching and concrete ceilings: how racism in the workplace affects Black women

Imagine if every day at work was a battle between being your ‘real self’ and your ‘work self’. Each day presenting a carefully modified version of yourself - what you say, how you dress, how you wear your hair. Knowing that others with the same skills and qualifications as you are more likely to get promoted or paid better. For many of you reading, you don’t have to imagine - this is your reality.

For Black History Month, we take a deep-dive into Black women’s experiences of the world of work.


75% of racially minoritised women report having experienced some form of racism in the workplace[1]: including ‘banter’ about ethnicity or culture, constant mispronunciation of names, blatant racial slurs, and being overlooked for promotions.

From the minute a Black woman is ready to enter the world of work, the deck is stacked against her. Across the UK, racially minoritised people are more likely to live in poverty than white people.[2] This means young Black girls, more likely to come from working class backgrounds, are likely not to have the same access to career advice, networks and opportunities as their white counterparts.

No matter how qualified, Black women can struggle to find well-paid work, due to the systemic racism endemic in Western society.

Black women are judged from the minute their CV hits the hiring manager’s desk. Deep-rooted biases, sometimes unconscious, lead to assumptions about someone based simply on their name. Research has shown that applications where the name suggests an ethnic minority origin, gain fewer invitations to interview than applications received from people perceived to be white British.[3] Bias and a lack of diversity in a hiring team can mean a Black woman, with the same skills and experience as a white woman, will miss out on an interview because the decision-makers are all white.


Code-switching (changing aspects of yourself, your appearance, how you express yourself and your culture) at work starts right from the application stage, when a Black woman might change how she presents herself, even on paper, to get a foot in the door.

It continues through the interview stage, where Black women face bias, stereotypes and micro-aggressions. For some Black women, going to an interview can mean changing her appearance or how she speaks to seem more professional or to appear more compatible with the organisation she hopes to join. And once she has a job, it continues into her daily working life.

“At work, I feel I can’t be myself; I have to be subdued and contained. It’s jarring, not being able to be my true self every day.”

former Working Chance Client

61% of racially minoritised women (compared to 44% of white women)[4] say they have made changes to hair, clothes, speech, or even food choices, just to fit in at work, with one in five Black women feeling like they have to straighten their hair for work[5] to appear professional. This constant pressure to conform takes its toll on self-esteem, confidence, and mental health.


Once a woman is in work, she can face all sorts of subtle and less subtle micro-aggressions that serve to make her feel ‘less than’ or othered.

Racially minoritised women have spoken of workplaces where they are always asked to do the “office housework”[6] - menial jobs like making the coffee or taking meeting notes. These actions, although they may seem small, over time can change how colleagues perceive someone and reduces both their standing in the organisation and their opportunities to develop skills and experience.


Research has shown that 64% of Black women felt that career progression was important to them[7], yet Black women are more likely to feel that they have been passed over for promotion than their white peers.

Black women are significantly underrepresented in positions of power in the workplace. Women in general struggle to break the ‘glass ceiling’ but Black women experience a ceiling made of something much harder to break. From the workplace[8] to Westminster[9], with fewer Black women in positions of power, those women who gain leadership positions face additional challenges including being mistaken for the secretary at meetings, or the service staff at events.

“There are systems of privilege in the workplace that keep certain people at the top, while others are relegated to overworked, underpaid positions. I see my colleagues go on holiday, while I can’t afford to."

former Working Chance Client

As well as being passed over for promotion, Black women are routinely paid less than white women. In their 2021 ethnicity pay gap report, the Competition and Market Authority noted that ‘of those organisations that have published ethnicity pay gap data, there is a trend towards a concentration of staff from ethnic minority backgrounds in junior roles, and an absence or under-representation of those staff at senior levels.’[10] However because reporting is voluntary, this data is limited.


The ethnicity pay gap is the difference in average pay between racially minoritised people and white people. This disparity in pay relates directly to lack of progress into more senior roles, and to decisions around salary offers that might be made behind closed doors that lead to Black women being offered less than they are worth, when others are offered more.

Publishing salaries would also go some way to ensuring pay equity across not just genders but ethnicities. In a recent survey, 70% of women, and 75% of racially minoritised women[11], said that to improve pay transparency, all job adverts should include the salary.

A recent report conducted by Black Women in Leadership[12] set out a series of additional actions employers could take to address some of the inequalities Black women experience in the workplace, including:

  • Offering equal career progression opportunities for Black women by setting up professional development programmes and establishing rules for increasing diversity for those in charge of deciding on promotions.
  • Removing the likelihood for unconscious bias in the hiring process through blind recruitment and diverse hiring panels.
  • Improving Black representation at Board level.
  • Collecting pay data and annually reporting on the ethnicity pay gap.


So, what effect does this have on Black women? Constant code-switching, being hyper-aware of how you present yourself and how others see you, feeling undervalued and overlooked for promotion is highly likely to affect someone’s mental health, confidence, and sense of self.

Ultimately, women who feel under-valued or unappreciated at work will pack up their skills and seek employment elsewhere, particularly in a context of chronic labour shortages. Employers who don’t act to make their workplaces great places for Black women to work, grow and thrive will be left with a more limited talent pool.


Anti-racism goes far beyond simply thinking that racial prejudice is wrong. Dismantling racism requires all of us to actively call out every instance of racism, both structural and individual. We all have a responsibility to be better allies to Black women and women from other racialised minorities, whether in the workplace or in society more broadly. Every one of us can take small actions to be better allies. We can all speak up when we see or hear racist slurs or micro-aggressions. When we become conscious, active anti-racists, we start changing the narrative and our positive influence can really start to reshape perceptions and ways of thinking.


Systemic racism means that bias and prejudice are built into systems, policies, processes, and practices, so employers who want to be actively anti-racist (rather than just saying they are) need to take a long hard look at their organisational culture.

It’s vital that employers have in place - and reinforce - processes for reporting on and responding to incidents of racism and that all staff are up to speed on equalities legislation.

But to tackle racism at a deeper level, employers need to work out what structural and cultural barriers in their organisation could be perpetuating workplace inequalities. The first step is making sure the organisation has the right HR data, particularly around existing diversity (who currently works for them, or is on their board) and inclusion - the extent to which employees feel valued, respected, involved, and like they belong, for example.

When looking at what barriers to career progression exist in their organisation, employers should consider intersectionalities, such as the combined effect of race and gender.

Other measures that can help to reduce bias in recruitment and career progression include:

  • Review recruitment practices, for example how and where employers recruit, images and language used in recruitment materials, interview practices and the approach of recruitment agencies hired by an employer.
  • Having policies and processes in place to ensure line managers offer fair promotion opportunities for staff.
  • Offering mentoring, coaching and training to racially minoritised women to support progression.
  • Building an inclusive culture where people benefit from one another’s differences and where everyone can thrive at work. Everyone should feel that their contribution matters and that they are able to perform to their full potential, whatever their background, identity or circumstances. There should be mechanisms to enable employees to voice issues about inequality, and a difference should be welcomed and celebrated.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has some excellent practical resources for employers here We also recommend that employers sign up to Business in the Community’s racism at work charter and the Halo Code – a campaign pledge for schools and employers that promises members of the Black community that they have the ‘freedom and security to wear all afro-hairstyles without restriction or judgment’.

The bottom line is that racism causes pain and trauma across communities and generations. It’s a systemic and structural issue that negatively affects the lives and rights of Black and minoritised women (and that’s before you add in the prejudice that women with convictions often experience from employers). Black women are overrepresented in minimum-wage jobs, experience multiple barriers to being hired and promoted, have to deal with micro-aggressions in the workplace, and are paid less than men and most other groups of women. In the face of these challenges, Black women at work demonstrate remarkable resilience, but they shouldn’t have to. Living at the intersection of racism and sexism is hard and holds women back from living their best life at work and being recognised and rewarded properly for their talents.

It’s up to all of us to change that.