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Blog, Policy briefing | 09 August 2021

Worst-Case Scenario: Left behind on the career ladder

Cheryl told us that being a Black woman in the workplace means she can’t be “her true self” without being perceived as a troublemaker.

We have previously talked about additional barriers racially minoritised women face when looking for work with a conviction, as well as the battles they have to fight - on multiple fronts - to get their lives back.

In the final part of this series, we take a look at how even after they find a job, racially minoritised women with convictions are less likely than their white counterparts to access opportunities to progress in their careers.

That’s because once you are on the road to employment, or even in a stable job, the battle with discrimination isn’t over.

Double discrimination

Racially minoritised women experience discrimination because of both their gender and their race, putting them at a double disadvantage in the workplace. Conscious or not, racial and gender bias can influence managers’ decisions in recruiting, hiring, or promoting staff. Employers may overlook talented candidates and workers and instead favour those who share their own characteristics or views.

Despite workplace discrimination being against the law, in practice, racially minoritised people are more likely to perceive the workplace as hostile and are more likely to be disciplined or judged harshly at work.

Stereotypes can play a big part. For example, Black women are often stereotyped as more aggressive or dominant, while East Asian women are stereotyped as submissive. These kinds of stereotypes can result in discrimination, like managers overly scrutinising the behaviour of Black women, resulting in a lower sense of wellbeing and job satisfaction for racially minoritised women.

Numerous studies have shown the impact of unconscious bias on racially minoritised women in the workplace. Almost half of women from Black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds say that they have been singled out for harder or unpopular tasks at work, while almost a third of BME women report being unfairly passed over for or denied a promotion at work. This, as well as lack of transparency around career ladders, mean that racially minoritised women are being left behind.

On top of this racial and gendered discrimination, racially minoritised women with convictions also have the added stigma of a criminal record. Women with convictions have reported hostility from their colleagues because of social perceptions against people who have criminal records. It’s not surprising that many women choose to keep their conviction a secret, and thus can’t be their whole selves at work.

Cheryl, a woman whose experience helped shape our report, tells us: ‘At work, I feel that I can’t be myself; I have to be subdued and contained.’

At work, I feel that I can’t be myself; I have to be subdued and contained.

Working Chance client

Underpaid and trapped

Because of the many employment barriers we highlighted in our first post in this series, as well as the cultural barriers we discussed in this second post, many racially minoritised women get stuck in entry level or low-paid positions.

As Cheryl said, ‘There are systems of privilege in workplaces that keep certain people at the top, while others are relegated to underpaid, overworked positions.’

The lack of career progression for women of colour means lack of diversity and representation. The repercussions of this are extremely serious. On an individual level, we all know how important it is to see yourself reflected in the industry you work for, or to follow in the steps of a role model. But racially minoritised women entering the workforce are all too often left without role models or leadership that understands them and can give them support.

We also found that women need jobs not just for the money, but to give them a sense of purpose. Finding meaning and value in your work is key to sustaining employment. Beyond the obvious impact on women’s self-esteem and sense of hope, we know that sustained employment is a key factor in reducing offending and reoffending. This is especially the case for women, who are more likely to commit offences out of financial need, such as theft or not paying TV licences.

People leaving prison who find work on release are 5-10% less likely to reoffend than those who do not. Conversely, when people can’t access stable jobs, racially minoritised groups with higher rates of unemployment have higher reoffending rates, which suggests that unemployment is closely linked to offending.

There are systems of privilege in workplaces that keep certain people at the top, while others are relegated to underpaid, overworked positions.

Working Chance client

Creating a more inclusive workplace

Employers are part of the solution to these problems, since they have an important role to play in removing the barriers to advancement for racially minoritised women. On top of doing the right thing, businesses stand to gain a lot from implementing inclusive practices.

This is why we recommended in our report that employers provide in-work support for their racially minoritised women employees. There are simple steps any employer can make to ensure that every employee gets the opportunities they deserve.

We recommend that employers:

  • Understand and work to eradicate cultural biases in the workplace.
  • Set up inclusive networks that allow employees to share challenges, make connections, and receive advice and support.
  • Ensure that flexible working conditions are available.
  • Establish professional development opportunities, including training and promotions, and make sure these are known to all staff.

Persistent racism across the criminal justice system, in our communities, and in our workplaces all make it much more difficult for racially minoritised women with convictions to rebuild their lives without discrimination. We must all commit to anti-racist practice so that every woman gets a fair chance.

How racism in the criminal justice system harms women's chances of finding work

Keep reading: Worst-Case Scenario

More in the Worst-Case Scenario blog series: