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  • Writer's pictureNICOLETTE STENGER

Part 2: Advancing Equity for Black Women in Professional Spaces - From Reflection to Action

Photo by Christina Morillo

Welcome back to our Black History Month Blog Series!

In this installment, I invite you into the heart of workplace dynamics through my experience as a clinical supervisor. It's a story that sheds light on the challenging environment created and fostered by organizational deficiencies and my leadership failures.

During my tenure, I witnessed disparities faced by two remarkable Black women counselors in a demanding work environment. These disparities weren't just a reflection of leadership failures; they highlighted deeper, systemic issues within our organization. One counselor, whom I'll refer to as "Claire," felt pressured to compromise her boundaries, while the other, "Keeley," was unfairly labeled as disruptive for advocating for fair treatment and manageable workloads. These experiences underscored the toxic blend of neglect and bias that often plagues professional settings, disproportionately impacting Black women.

Claire sacrificed her well-being and professional boundaries to align with program leaders. She adapted her behavior to meet the unrealistic expectations of leadership, even at the expense of her well-being and client care. Despite her efforts, she was met with silence from leadership when expressing concerns about overwhelming workloads and unrealistic expectations, which only exacerbated her struggles.

On the other hand, Keeley took a proactive approach in advocating for manageable caseloads and pushing back against unrealistic expectations. She courageously spoke up during staff meetings and engaged in discussions with program directors to address workload distribution and prioritize client care. However, leadership often dismissed or labeled her efforts as disruptive, further contributing to the challenging environment.

Reflecting on the experiences of Keeley, it's important to address the pervasive stereotype of the "Angry Black Woman." This stereotype unfairly portrays black women who assert themselves or express frustration as aggressive or confrontational. Keeley’s courageous advocacy for manageable workloads and prioritization of client care may have been perceived through this lens, contributing to the dismissive response from leadership. This underscores the need to challenge stereotypes and biases in the workplace and to create an environment where all voices are valued and respected.

I acknowledge my failures as a clinical supervisor. I regret not taking a more proactive approach to addressing the challenging environment that was perpetuated by leadership and failing to support both counselors effectively. I realize now that my attempts to remove barriers and collaborate with counselors were insufficient, as I failed to address the power dynamics and systemic biases ingrained within the organization.

One crucial aspect I regret not addressing is the dynamic where one counselor was praised for having ineffective boundaries while the other was unfairly criticized for expressing that the workload was overwhelming. I recognize now the importance of advocating for equitable treatment and challenging harmful narratives within the organization. If I could go back, I would have advocated for a more supportive and inclusive environment and called in the director of the program for enabling this dynamic.

Additionally, I wish I had been more proactive in acknowledging how race intersected with the treatment of the counselors. As black women, they faced unique challenges and biases that were not adequately recognized or addressed by non-black leaders. While I may not have been fully aware of these dynamics at the time, I acknowledge that it was my responsibility as a leader to educate myself and advocate for my team members.

Moreover, I acknowledge the pressure I felt to focus on the priorities outlined by my superiors - giving trainings on how to complete documentation timely, for example - even if they were unrealistic or detrimental to the well-being of my team. This is a common experience for middle management, but it does not excuse me from advocating for my team members and challenging harmful practices.

Moving forward, I am committed to doing better. I understand the importance of actively seeking education, understanding the impact of my actions, and fostering a culture of collaboration and inclusivity within the team. I will prioritize advocating for meaningful change within organizations and dismantling oppressive systems that disproportionately impact black women.

This journey of reflection and becoming anti-racist as managers is ongoing. It's a process, not an outcome, and requires continuous self-awareness, learning, and action. It's not just about correcting past mistakes but about building a future where equity and inclusivity are at the core of our professional spaces.

As for the outcomes of the counselors I mentioned, I don't have direct information on where they are now. However, I do know that after my departure, Keeley found a new role outside the organization shortly thereafter. This turnover isn't uncommon in environments where the work culture is challenging, especially for black women who often face higher rates of turnover due to systemic issues and workplace biases. The toll of navigating such environments can be significant, impacting not only the well-being of individual employees but also the overall effectiveness and mission of the organization.

About a year after I left, Claire was still working in the same role. And what we know is that without intervention, situations like these have predictable endings. While I'm unsure if she was managing the expectations of the role any differently, if nothing changed, these stressors would continue to negatively impact her health and well-being. Although I hope her leadership recognized the unrealistic demands placed on counselors and took steps to provide additional resources and support, toxic environments rarely change without intervention. 

The effects of challenging environments on black women ultimately hurt organizations. When employees are unsupported and undervalued, it impacts morale, productivity, and the ability to fulfill the organization's goals effectively. Recognizing and addressing these issues is not only essential for the well-being of individual employees but also for the success and sustainability of the organization as a whole.

Actionable Steps Towards Change

  • Creating Equitable Work Environments:Conduct Regular Bias Training: Implement ongoing training sessions available for all staff, focusing on identifying and addressing racial biases, with a specific emphasis on challenges faced by Black women in the workplace.Establish Clear Channels for Feedback and Support: Create safe, confidential avenues for employees to report concerns and receive support without fear of retaliation.

  • Promoting Inclusivity and Equity:Diversify Leadership: Actively work towards diversifying leadership within the organization to reflect the diversity of the staff and those served.Review and Revise Policies: Regularly review policies and practices to ensure they are equitable and do not inadvertently disadvantage Black women or other minority groups.

In the next installment, we'll explore how education and self-awareness can be pivotal in creating trauma-informed workplaces. Stay tuned as we continue our journey towards equity and inclusivity.

Recommended reading:

  • "How to Be an Antiracist" by Ibram X. Kendi

  • "White Fragility" by Robin DiAngelo

  • "The Urgency of Intersectionality" TED Talk by Kimberlé Crenshaw


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