Billie Jean King-backed study on women of color at work

Tennis legend Billie Jean King says her first “she-ro” was Althea Gibson, the first Black athlete to win a Grand Slam title. So King, who has spent her career fighting for women’s equality in sports, didn’t hesitate to help fund a new study on the experiences of women of color in the workplace, PowHer Redefined: Women of Color Reimagining the World of Work, out today.

The findings are troubling. Nearly three-quarters of the almost 1,200 women of color surveyed and interviewed say they feel they have to prove themselves “over and over” in the workplace. Two-thirds say they don’t have access to sponsors, and 57% say others take their ideas and don’t give credit. Perhaps most sobering of all, 54% of WOC say women undermine each other at work, fighting over the proverbial single chair at the table.

And yet 76% say they bring unique skills to their places of work—and 68% say they are willing to speak truthfully even in uncomfortable situations. Indeed, the study, funded by King’s nonprofit leadership group and released in partnership with nFormation, a membership community, ends on an optimistic note. It offers suggestions for corporations, allies (or “co-conspirators,” the report calls them), and women of color to make systemic changes that could unlock the potential and power of what nFormation cofounder Rha Goddess calls “an underutilized resource.”

Rha Goddess (left) and Billie Jean King(right) [Photo: courtesy of The Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative]

Fast Company spoke with King, Goddess, and nFormation cofounder Deepa Purushothaman about the report and why they are so hopeful that change is coming. (This interview has been edited for clarity and space.)

Fast Company: Billie Jean, why was it important for you to help fund this report?

Billie Jean King: [When I was] 12 years old, I was daydreaming at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, and I was thinking about [how] everybody who played wore white shoes, white socks, white clothes, played with white balls. Everybody who played was white. And I said, “Well, where’s everyone else?” I promised myself that day that I would fight for equality the rest of my life.

One year later I saw my first “she-ro” and that was Althea Gibson. She’s the first Black ever to win a major [tennis tournament]. I’m a huge believer in [the adage], “If you can see it, you can be it.” I saw her and I saw how great you have to be to be No. 1.

[Backing this study] was a no brainer for us because it is so important that we hear from women of color, their truth, their stories, what they’re feeling, what they’re experiencing.

Which of the findings stood out for each of you?

Deepa Purushothaman: The idea that women didn’t help each other. That data is alarming—to see only 9% of white women say they sponsor a woman of color is surprising. But the piece that also jumps out for me is the value we bring to the workplace, the fact that women of color see themselves as truth tellers, that they feel like they have skills that are special and unique in this moment where leadership is changing and the demographics of the workplace are changing. We need different kinds of leadership.

Rha Goddess: We are the greatest underutilized resource in the re-imagining of the world of work. We all understand and recognize that work is not working. If you’re interested in a more diverse and inclusive talent base, which enables you to win and grow and achieve your missions, then you got some listening to do, and we’ve got some work to do. There is deep work that we, as women, have to do across the board, to recognize how we can better advocate and support and stand with one another. I think the 9% [of white women mentoring a WOC] was shocking to me, but I think what was the fact that 93% [of WOC and 91% of white women] thought we should work together, but only 9% were actively doing it.

BJK: I’m big on uniting people. How we unite is absolutely vital in this. [We need] to get people together and listen—truly listen and have empathy for each other.

Still, the report is really clear in noting that women of color are not a monolithic group.

DP: We have conversations around the term “women of color,” and some people like [it], and some people don’t. Our feeling is that in the workplace, there is a set of circumstances or a set of situations that happen for women of color, and there’s power in coming together to address that.

RG: We are also in a moment where we are giving ourselves permission to show up as ourselves. We’ve all been asked to conform to something that is not us.

What is your advice to women who would like to show up at work more authentically?

RG: It has to come back to your values. There are things that we’ve shed traditionally in order to excel in certain environments and, as we’re starting to reclaim those parts of ourselves, the question always comes back to our values. What are the values and the principles that we want to live by, that we want to operate by?

Every single one of us has a right to discern whether or not we’re in environments that are going to support our health and well-being. I listened to well over a thousand women, even before we started this research, one-on-one and in groups, and high-performing women who had to sort of step outside of their values ,or their cultural groundings, in order to excel and achieve in these environments—that literally began to take a physical toll on their health and well-being. And so I think we’re in a moment of reckoning around these challenges and around these issues. We’ve got to come home to ourselves.

DP: Sometimes it’s okay to question the structures around us. In all candor, I don’t know that women of color have given themselves permission to question structures. If we’re all told there’s one chair that one of us gets, then we end up in this competition.That’s not helpful to any of us. And so we have to really question those things because if Rha and I are competing for a chair, we’re not necessarily helping each other and changing the structure. 

What makes you optimistic? Why are you hopeful that we’ll make progress this time?

BJK: People like Rha and Deepa are going to help this change. We have to keep fighting for each other and listening to each other and asking for what we want and need. We need also examples. If you can see it, you can be it.

DP: I spent over two decades in corporate, and I don’t think I would have seen a report like this three, four years ago. So the fact that this conversation is happening gives me optimism. It feels like we’re in a moment where so much has happened between COVID-19; between people questioning the place that work is going to take in their lives; between the conversations that we’re having on race, especially race in the workplace, where change can happen. And it feels like women of color are ready.

RG: We are in a moment and I think there’s tremendous opportunity to do things differently. And I also think there’s more room and space to hear it in ways that … we couldn’t even have these conversations two years ago, and now we’re finding literally the corporate leaders are reaching out to us every single day, wanting to engage in conversation.