This week Vouge released the harrowing story of how Serena Williams essentially saved herself from a few medical emergencies by pushing through more than one medical misstep from people who were charged with keeping her safe and healthy postpartum.
Bias against Black people in the medical profession is well documented and the impact of this bias can be as severe as premature or unnecessary death. Yet, that doesn't tell the entire story. Poorer health outcomes are surely the result of access to substandard healthcare, coupled with larger environmental issues (so-called environmental determinants of health) but a growing body of research is highlighting that the mere existence in a Black body in the United States can cause adverse effects that may trickle all the way down to the chromosomal level. Last month NPR published the heartbreaking story of postpartum mortality of black women which should not only sadden you but should make you furious as well.
The latest episode of Code Switch gives the science behind how the stress that Black people experience by simply being Black in a country with enumerable structural and cultural inequities is effecting, generation after generation a whole population. Even when you control for education and socioeconomic status the cumulative impact of the daily stress of structural racism is driving health inequities at an alarming rate.
So, why should the tech sector care about this? As I mentioned in my earlier blog the private sector (and Tech specifically) cannot solve it's D&I problem unless it uses an equity framework to inform strategies.
Let's use the example of a perk many tech companies offer: Flexible PTO and/or Telecommute policies. Looking at this policy from a Diversity and Inclusion standpoint it seems great - we expand the possibility for employees to create better work-life balance, it expands access to jobs to folks who may have disabilities and gives parents the opportunity to better coordinate child-rearing with their career needs.
This is GREAT! AND I would venture a guess that people of color, specifically Black people in these companies (and likely women as well, but we'll focus in on race in this example) - do not utilize this flexibility at rates on par with their non-Black peers (Author note: this is a metric you should track if you're measuring the inclusivity of your organization, which you certainly should be).
But why? Why wouldn't Black folks utilize this employment perk, especially given the additional stress that comes along with the aforementioned? Well, because Black people are still cognizant of persistent bias in hiring and manager-employee relationships. There's an old adage that "you have to work twice as hard to be seen as half as good" - this still rings true for the majority of Black employees in predominantly white companies, organizations and institutions.
Imagine the pressure of trying to excel within a company when you are pushing back against unconscious bias of your peers and superiors, while simultaneously managing the additional stress you carry with you by the virtue of your racial identity AND having a perk that might provide you with the opportunity to mitigate for that stress yet not feeling like you can access that resource because what will people think? It can make your head spin. Black folks in predominantly white companies are constantly making an estimation of which decisions might be (intentionally or unintentionally) attributed to their race, which makes the possibility of utilizing PTO perks even less likely.
So what can tech companies do to ensure that their Black employees feel empowered to utilize perks they have rightly earned, and in turn improve their productivity? Here's a few ideas:
- If you aren't currently analyzing PTO utilization (both quantitatively and qualitatively) you need to start.
- Continue to invest in employee development and training that mitigates for bias.
- Normalize conversations about mental health and stress - while paying particular attention to the disparate ways certain groups are impacted. By destigmatizing the conversation about mental health and how structural and interpersonal racism disproportionately impacts people of color/Black people - you create an environment where employees feel seen, heard and empowered to communicate their needs.
- Keep abreast to the national context and how major events that impact marginalized groups at the macro level may have impacts at the micro level. Example: The acquittal of the officer who murdered Philando Castile made me physically ill and unable to finish the work day. I did not know him - but I have deep, meaningful relationships with people who look just like him.
- Practice empathetic listening - believe people's experiences and create space for them to communicate their needs.
If you want to learn more about the above concepts or approaches - reach out!: firstname.lastname@example.org