Black Women in the Work Environment: Underappreciated and Underrepresented

By: Sam Ross

Edited by: Cynthia Stringer

Claudine Gay’s decision to step down as president of Harvard University has garnered significant attention in the media. Indeed, the reasons behind her seemingly spontaneous resignation are rather interesting. Claudine, while speaking at a congressional hearing before the US House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee, was unable to say whether threats for Jewish genocide on campus would violate the conduct of Harvard. Many individuals were unimpressed by this for obvious reasons, prompting them to check into her career more. Their examination revealed that certain sentences found in her dissertations and public articles were taken word for word from other authors, without citations or credit given. However, the public’s reaction to Gay’s antisemitism and alleged plagiarism has been questionable

While watching a video reporting the events involving the former University President, I noticed a slew of hurtful words in the comment section. These comments had very little to do with Gay’s wrongdoings, and they instead drew focus to the fact that Gay is Black. “She was a diversity hire and subsequent diversity failure. Expect more DEI failure soon,” a commenter wrote. DEI, which stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion, is a mindset adopted by many workplaces throughout their hiring processes. Its purpose is to ensure working environments are balanced and inclusive–to increase hiring of qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds Narratives resembling the aforementioned comment unfairly discredit DEI and incorrectly draw parallels between it and Gay’s wrongdoings. These claims are not only untrue, but they are incredibly harmful. 

While the allegations about Gay’s academic integrity, in addition to her antisemitic remarks, are highly unethical and raise serious concerns, there is no evidence that she was hired because she is Black. Referring to Gay’s skin colour harms not just her, but also hard working Black women whose success is often undervalued due to assumptions about policies like DEI. Discounting their achievements is simply not fair, especially when given the systemic barriers they face every step of the way. 

Before I delve deeper into the issues of underestimation and underrepresentation that Black women consistently face in the workplace, I recognize that as a person who is not Black, I speak from a place of privilege. I do not intend to explain the Black experience to anyone. I simply aspire to spread awareness to an issue that is far too prevalent in the lives of so many. 

Underestimation and underrepresentation go hand-in-hand for Black women in the workplace. They are often underestimated because they have been underrepresented in positions of power for so long, which creates a cycle where Black women are repeatedly overlooked, making it difficult for them to advance and be recognized. A quick Google search for ‘Black women underrepresented’ results in a plethora of statistics revealing how black women are less likely to be promoted or supported by their bosses, highlighting the need for greater awareness and action to address the systemic barriers preventing Black women from succeeding.

The lack of Black representation in the workplace has yielded measures like affirmative action or the aforementioned DEI initiatives, which sometimes include hiring “quotas”. While these initiatives aim to address systemic barriers and promote equality, they have also resulted in a misconception that Black people are given an unfair advantage in the hiring process, resulting in assumptions that they may be less qualified for their positions. However, these measures were implemented to address the longstanding issue of Black people being excluded from certain workplaces. They aim to encourage diversity and ensure that Black people are considered for jobs that were previously only accessible to white people. These initiatives do not introduce unfair advantage, but rather strive to even the playing field and counteract the effects of systemic discrimination. Without these measures, Black people may struggle to gain a foothold in these workplaces. It’s important to recognize that Black people who are hired through affirmative action and DEI are just as qualified, if not more so, than their co-workers. They should not be assumed to be less competent or capable based on the measures that were put in place to ensure their inclusion.

These negative notions about how a Black woman got her job can also lead to the devaluation of her work and her capabilities. If people question whether she earned her position, they may find it difficult to take her or her work seriously, which can create a hostile or dismissive work environment. Additionally, her contributions may not be fully recognized or appreciated. 

So, what exactly can be done to address this deeply rooted issue? Obviously learning more about the unique hardships Black women face is vital in preventing assumptions that they are undeserving of their jobs. I think the most important lesson can be learned from reflecting on the public’s reaction to cases like Claudine Gay, where many jumped to conclusions about her being hired based on race, rather than focusing on her alleged ethical violations. Claudine’s actions should not have been attributed to her race, that is a completely separate fact. By questioning our own biases and making positive, genuine changes, we can ensure that Black women are recognized for their skills and contributions, rather than having their achievements diminished or their challenges overlooked.

Works Cited:

Binkley, Collin, and Moriah Balingit. “Analysis | Harvard President’s Resignation Highlights U.S. Conservatives’ Bid to Remake Higher Education | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 3 Jan. 2024, www.cbc.ca/news/world/harvard-plagiarism-gay-rufo-1.7073122.

Field, Emily, et al. “Women in the Workplace 2023.” McKinsey & Company, McKinsey & Company, 5 Oct. 2023, www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace.

Fullinwider, Robert. “Affirmative Action.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 9 Apr. 2018, plato.stanford.edu/entries/affirmative-action/.

“Harvard President Resigns amid Controversy over Anti-Semitisim Hearing.” Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 2 Jan. 2024, www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/1/2/harvard-president-resigns-amid-controversy-over-anti-semitisim-hearing.

NBC NEWS. “Harvard President Claudine Gay Announces Resignation.” YouTube, YouTube, 3 Jan. 2024, www.youtube.com/watch?v=EoUpYk1tNVw.

The U.S. National Archives. Photograph of the Division of Classification and Cataloging. 1 Jan. 1937. Wikipedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Photograph_of_the_Division_of_Classification_and_Cataloging_(36341206050).jpg.

“What Is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?” McKinsey & Company, McKinsey & Company, 17 Aug. 2022, www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/mckinsey-explainers/what-is-diversity-equity-and-inclusion.