After lodging a sexual harassment complaint against a coworker at her job in 2009, Cynthia Watson says she was shunned in the office. She was characterized as a troublemaker, and her concerns were ignored. Her manager, she said, would make sexualized jokes, resulting in what Watson felt was a hostile work environment.
“It was like no one was supporting me—no one inside my department, even coworkers,” remembers Watson, 50. “I was like an outsider in my department.”
It wasn’t until her white counterparts reported similar incidents that her department finally took action.
The experience took a toll on her mental health. Watson, a licensed social worker who works for a federal agency, was diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. She was put on medication and had to take a few weeks off from work.
It was a job that she liked. “I enjoyed working with the clients,” Watson says. “I was good at what I did.” But she says the situation stunted her career growth. She believes she was blackballed and that her reputation was tarnished.
Workplace discrimination and Black women’s health
Jocelyn Frye, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, points out that women of color are more likely to experience sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination. In June 2022, the organization noted that Black pregnant women are “likely to face greater racism, discrimination and harassment at work. Black women in the United States are more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than women in any other racial group.”
“There’s a lot of research that shows that Black women who are encountering discrimination problems in the workplace experience poor health outcomes that hurt their overall health and well-being,” Frye says.
For example, the National Partnership notes that “detrimental health outcomes are linked to both the accumulated burden of racism-associated stress that has built up over centuries and to institutional and interpersonal racism in the workplace.”
A trauma-like effect on Black women’s health
For more than 15 years, Sierra Carter, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Georgia State University, has done this kind of research, including studying the impact of racism on Black Americans. In 2021, she helped publish a study of 55 Black women “who reported how much they’d been exposed to traumatic experiences, such as childhood abuse and physical or sexual violence, and to racial discrimination, experiencing unfair treatment due to race or ethnicity.”
Carter and her research team found that “racism had a trauma-like effect on Black women’s health” and that “being regularly attuned to the threat of racism can tax important body-regulation tools and worsen brain health.” She points to studies that have demonstrated an increase in mental health disorders in those who experienced a continuous threat of racism.
For example, in a 2022 study published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, researchers noted that racial discrimination had a negative impact on human health—specifically, it had the potential to increase the risk for medical disorders.
Although research has documented how “the chronic stress of racism can get under the skin and leave a biological residue of enduring health consequences for Black Americans over time,”—including a disproportionate risk for stroke and Alzheimer’s disease—this was “one of the first [studies] to consider how the brain might respond to experiences of racial discrimination above and beyond other traumatic stressors,” Carter wrote for The Washington Post.
The hostile work environment Watson endured at her job often left her in tears. She wasn’t able to sleep, she says. She stopped exercising and no longer wanted to hang out with her friends. She couldn’t concentrate at work, and she was angry.
“No one seemed to be listening to me,” Watson says.
Companies need to be intentional about change
Eventually, Watson got a new supervisor, and her work environment improved. But it took about three years, she says. Six years after reporting her sexual harassment, she got a promotion and was moved to a different department in 2015.
Too many times, Frye says, companies sweep discrimination or harassment charges under the rug. They do a settlement or create a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) statement. Some companies may even hire a DEI facilitator or hold company-wide diversity training for employees.
This type of pro forma isn’t going to change the culture of the organization, Frye says.
“It’s about really digging deep and being intentional about looking at: What are the problems, the equity and anti-discrimination problems? What are those things that are facing different groups of people, and how can I fix them?” Frye says. “What are the experiences of Black women, of Latinas, of all the folks in our building, and how can we be responsive? What are the things we can do? Do people have policies in place? What does the implementation look like?”
Frye says DEI work has to be more than coming up with a policy. She says companies have to be willing to unearth how discrimination plays itself out in the workplace and be intentional about how the company will tackle specific problems.
Understanding the work that needs to be done to end workplace discrimination
“There are many employers who may be very well-intentioned, but they have to understand what the work really is,” Frye says.
The discrimination and bias that is entrenched in workplaces is a systemic problem across many institutional settings that did not happen overnight, Frye points out, noting that companies have to be committed to doing the necessary work to get rid of discrimination and bias and hold people accountable. There are times when companies are afraid to find out they have a problem. But, left alone, the problem festers and becomes embedded in company culture.
“Too often, what we are talking about are biases and practices that become entrenched, and so they become embedded into how an entity functions. Then it becomes hard to fix,” Frye says. “It’s in an employer’s interest to try to nip something in the bud—or, once they find something, to really think about, How can I fix this? What do I need to do?”
Ultimately, discriminatory workplaces that make it hard for Black women to be successful are harmful to the economic and social well-being of Black families—and to the overall economy, Frye says. When Black women, and women overall, are out of the workforce, there are broad economic ramifications; women are needed to contribute to the overall economy.
“It is important for employers to understand that this is work that they have to be intentional about. It is not something that is going to happen on its own. We don’t get rid of discrimination, racism and sexism that way,” Frye says. “You have to be really vigilant about where it’s coming up, and you have to be willing to take the actions necessary to make sure that your workplace operates in a way that’s free of bias and discrimination.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock