It's a "both and" situation rather than an "either or" one. Both #OscarSoWhite in 2016, and black film on the rise again. Both Obama carrying Virginia in 2008 to become the first black U.S. President (Virginia was once home to the Confederacy), and the alt-right and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville last week.

Black female leadership in the U.S. is subject to a similar ambiguity. The 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report estimates that there are 1.9 million African American women-owned firms; this is a 112% increase between 2007 and 2016. These firms account for $51.4 billion in revenues and 376.5k jobs. At the same time, the concrete ceiling alluded to by Ray and Davies in their article, "Black executives speak out on: The concrete ceiling", is no less a reality for some now than it was in 1988, when they published the piece. Here, Ray and Davies propose that while white women face a glass ceiling in their career advancement, black women face a concrete one. The concrete ceiling blocks your view of advancement opportunities, and limits your access to them - sometimes to zero.

In a rich treatment of the female African American experience in the workplace, Aisha Holder, Margo Jackson, and Joseph Ponterotto investigate experiences of racial microaggression and coping strategies used by black female corporate leaders who broke through the concrete ceiling. Published by the American Psychological Association in 2015, its findings echo some of the concerns and experiences reported by some of our own clients. Blatant, easily-identifiable racism is moving out of the office, only to be replaced in some cases by a more insidious form of discrimination and hostility: racial microaggression.

Derald Sue, Christina Capodilupo, et al. (2007) define racial microaggressions as "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group". Some of our black and bi-racial clients have experienced this, and it has translated in various ways. These include, but are not limited to: disproportionate commentary on what they look like; repeatedly being overlooked for staffing on important projects; and, having their work subjected to closer scrutiny than their peers'.

What is it like to constantly have your intelligence, ability, and leadership capacities doubted and underestimated? How does it feel to witness coworkers, no more professionally-talented or socially-adept than you, progress more rapidly up the ranks at your organisation?

The challenge with racial microaggression is that it is hard to detect. As a covert and subtle form of racism - in some cases, even unknowingly perpetrated by the person behind it - it is hard to see it for what it is, even if you are the person at the effect of it. The incidences in and of themselves can happen so quickly and can appear innocuous: they can be blamed on orders that have simply come through from another department, who invariably blame it on some bureaucratic procedure and who are "very sorry, and truly empathise with your frustration", or on the perpetrator just having an "off day" ("you know how it is for her"), or you might even simply be asked to lighten up ("you know so-and-so didn't mean it like that. Come on, just let it go").

There are three main implications for those at the effect of microaggressive behaviours in the workplace:

  1. The individual feels that they are unable to report the discrimination on account of it being so subtle or nuanced (especially if the person they are required to report it to has not been a victim of racial discrimination themselves);

  2. The organisation's representative, or the grounds on which the organisation is able to penalise such behaviour, is unable to register the behaviours as clearly being discriminatory;

  3. The individual becomes unsure or doubtful of whether the behaviours really are discriminatory, especially when others who observe the behaviours do not react, or do not consider them to be offensive. This uncertainty can be exacerbated in cases where an organisation decides to bring in external consultants who encourage employees to look at themselves and to think about what they themselves can do, and what their own role in the situation was. This can cause further drain of responsibility away from the perpetrators themselves, not to mention possible victim-blaming.

Thus, the target of microaggressions can, unfortunately, be left relatively powerless when it comes to seeking redress using the appropriate channels offered by their organisation. Arguably, this is one of the greatest 'micro'-aggressions: the organisational structure and culture has not been built with their success, wellbeing, and safety in mind.

The psychological effects of aversive racism can be as harmful as overt racism. The victim doubts whether they have really been the target of micro-acts of hostility or discrimination, leaving them psychologically ill-equipped to protect themselves against further transgressions. Maria Root (2003) identifies ten main categories of symptoms experienced by employees who experience chronic microaggression; among them are anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, helplessness, and loss of drive.

Even if a target of microaggression is able to identify what has happened, it's usually already damaged their sense of confidence and career development in some way. It may also significantly undermine any desire to continue in their current job or work environment. Here, it feels easier - and perhaps also safer - to simply move on and work someplace else. This, even if it means an effective demotion, or taking a lateral move that doesn't support their professional aspirations, let alone leverage their professional capital. Still other targets of microaggression switch to a different career type altogether, preferring to "opt out" of any environment that may expose them to this kind of harassment again.

The above said, countless black women do persevere in the face of microaggressive behaviours, and successfully so. As with all challenges that require us to persist in the face of difficult circumstances, these leaders have not only become adept at surviving, but they have positively thrived. Ironically, it is just these sophisticated adaptive skills that mean they possess critical components of effective leadership: resilience and a strong aptitude for managing complexity. African American women also represent one of the fastest growing minority groups with professional and graduate degrees in the U.S.. As increasing numbers of these women note that their performance will not and cannot grant them the career advancement they are capable of, it should be no surprise to continue to see exponential growth in businesses founded and run by them. Perhaps enterprise is precisely the place for their sophisticated adaptive skills and bright minds.

Holder, A., Jackson, M., & Ponterotto, J. (2015). Racial microaggression experiences and coping strategies of black women and corporate leadership. Qualitative Psychology, Vol. 2, No. 2, 164-180.

Ray, E., & Davis, C. (1988). Black executives speak out on: The concrete ceiling. Executive Female, 6, 34-38.

Root, M. P. P. (2003). Racial and ethnic origins of harrassment in the workplace. In D. B. Pope Davis, H. L. K. Coleman, W. M. Liu, & R. L. Toporek (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural competencies in counseling and psychology (pp. 478-492). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial Microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62, 271-286.

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