The Invisible World of Black Women at Work (Invisible)


"Invisible" Part 2 of this four-part series offers strategies for attracting, developing, and retaining black women leadership by increasing "psychological safety" on teams. Click here for an introduction and overview of this series. Click here for Part 1: "The Business Case" for why top companies should seek attract, engage, develop, and retain black women talent.

Psychological safety is a set of beliefs that make it easier for individual team members to take risks. An example of psychological safety on a team is asking a question knowing that the question will expose your ignorance, and asking anyway. Psychological safety allows us to take risks, think creatively, and puzzle out strategy. When psychological safety is diminished, the amygdala—the brain’s alarm—triggers a fight-or-flight response. When psychological safety is lacking, we fear retaliation or criticism for exposing our mistakes. The brain encounters an interpersonal provocation at work, for example, as life or death. Just when we need our brain to think strategically, it shuts down instead. “Quite literally, just when we need it most, we lose our minds.”

To perform well at work we need to be able to ask what the goal was without the risk that our competence will be questioned. “When the workplace feels challenging but not threatening, teams can sustain the broaden-and-build mode. Oxytocin levels in our brains rise, eliciting trust and trust-making behavior.”

Research acknowledges that where workers experience low representation of their gender or race, there are associated detrimental effects on health, wellbeing, and the ability to thrive at work.

Unsurprisingly black women working in environments with low representation of their gender or race report feeling inauthentic, emotionally taxed, and drained at work. Black women in leadership roles at large companies report persistently second guessing their decisions. They perceive that their work is judged negatively on intangible personality traits rather than substance. Her self confidence suffers. She’s mentally taxed and exhausted rather than invigorated by her work.

“We’re just tired of playing other people’s games. And I don’t want to have to contort myself to fit your expectations, because ultimately that will make me less successful.” Educator and Activist Britney Packet, told Fortune.

“We’re just tired of playing other people’s games. And I don’t want to have to contort myself to fit your expectations, because ultimately that will make me less successful.” Educator and Activist Britney Packet, told Fortune.

YAMS: Your Authenticity Matters, Sis

Black women are nothing if not resourceful creators. Rather than contort to fit the standard corporate structure, black women are increasingly creating their own spaces to implement innovative, even provocative strategies for creating psychological safety in their workplaces. Many are making the decision to leave the traditional corporate structure in pursuit of entrepreneurial efforts to do just that. They are coming up with creative ways to upend the standard corporate environment.


“We’re just tired of playing other people’s games. And I don’t want to have to contort myself to fit your expectations, because ultimately that will make me less successful.” Educator and Activist Britney Packet, told Fortune.

A mass exodus of black women leaders from traditional corporate organizations, however, only exacerbates the issue.

So, how can organizations retain their black women leadership? By replicating proven strategies to increase psychological safety on teams. Research supports the following strategies:

Understand the distinction between diversity and inclusion.

Admittedly, the terms diversity and inclusion may be confusing to distinguish since many use the terms either interchangeably or as a single concept. Simply, a diverse team is made up of many colors while “inclusion is a higher level of reconfiguration. It’s when you’re provided the tools to thrive . . . [versus] ‘plug and play into the singularity’” explained Wesley Morris, NYTimes contributor and host of NYT podcast Still Processing. “You experience inclusion when you simultaneously feel valued for your uniqueness and you have a sense of belonging on your team.”


Intersectional invisibility describes the tendency to be overlooked, disregarded, or forgotten due to one’s status as a member of two or more underrepresented and devalued groups. For black women it’s not being on the radar even though she is best choice for the assignment. Relatedly, it’s not being invited to social interactions when white male counterparts are invited. At the same time, because she is underrepresented, she experiences being physically highly visible; made to feel uncomfortable by colleagues who comment on her physical appearance more often than her work. (“Did you change your hair again?”) Even a compliment on appearance becomes grating when her substantive contributions to the team are regularly overlooked.

Speak Human to Human.

In developing psychological safety on his team, Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google reminded his team to recognize the deeper universal needs of team members such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. Obviously, these needs are no different for black women. “Recognizing these deeper needs naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language and behaviors.” 

Santagata led team through a reflection called “Just Like Me,” which asks you to consider:

  • This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.

  • This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.

  • This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.

  • This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.

  • This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.

Ask for feedback on delivery.

Seeking feedback on your delivery is vital on both ends of a conversation. This is especially true when colleagues or managers experience gaps in cultural understanding or lack training and education on cultural competency. For instance, a manager may not be aware her communication style belittling.

Rather than avoiding necessary and difficult conversations, Santagata closes difficult conversations with these questions:

  • What worked and what didn’t work in my delivery?

  • How did it feel to hear this message?

  • How could I have presented it more effectively?

Measure psychological safety.

Santagata’s team routinely takes surveys on psychological safety and other team dynamics. Some teams at Google include questions such as, “How confident are you that you won’t receive retaliation or criticism if you admit an error or make a mistake?”

Other questions might be: “Can I count on your help to give me honest, constructive feedback if I use words that are hurtful or offensive to you, in the moment or later?”

Colleagues should be invited to share examples of their experiences on work teams where they felt valued, heard, and included and to share experiences where they felt singled out, devalued, or dismissed.

These conversations can create understanding: a key element of psychological safety.

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And stay-tuned to this 4-Part Series! (published weekly)


As an employment attorney and human resources consultant, I look beyond merely addressing conflicts. I uncover pathways for a more nimble dialogue between organizations and their employees. I believe that an employee’s deep commitment to her work and personal identification with her company’s mission should be aligned her employer’s efforts to encourage and promote those values. An employee’s value should be reflected by her organization’s investment in retaining, developing, and promoting her. It’s clear from the research that when an employee’s dedication to her work is cultivated and deepened, the organization wins.

My work is based on my core belief that the quality of the experiences of my aunties, cousins, and friends depends on the concerted effort of their organizations to invest in a robust and genuine dialogue with them. My work is to create and nurture those pathways. And hey, if that results in making corporations a ton of money by uncovering ways to match the billion dollar market of black women clients and consumers, so be it! 

Tracy Vroom