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Insights from Black women leaders: barriers and strategies for success

Black women leaders share insights into their strengths and the obstacles they face, while unveiling strategies for achieving success in diverse fields
September 22, 2023
A group of five women smiling and posing for a photo together.

From left to right, Nancy Mitchell, senior program manager at the Diversity Institute; Nadine Spencer, CEO of the Black Business and Professional Association; Susan Swayze, associate professor of educational research at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University; Wendy Cukier, founder and academic director of the Diversity Institute; and Ovie Onagbeboma, executive director of the Canadian Black Nurses Alliance, at the Black Women Leaders event.

On July 17, 2023, the Diversity Institute (DI) and Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA) (external link)  hosted an inspiring event celebrating the leadership of Black women. The event provided a platform to recognize the strengths of Black women leaders, discuss the challenges they face and explore solutions to support their advancement. 

Nadine Spencer, CEO of the BBPA, and Ovie Onagbeboma, executive director of the Canadian Black Nurses Alliance (external link) , launched the event by noting Black women leaders bring diverse perspectives and competencies to the table, making them exceptional in their industries. They highlighted boldness as a prominent quality, citing Black women leaders’ facility with taking charge and advocating for themselves and their communities. Additionally, Onagbeboma cited their ability to multitask and constant desire to grow as setting them apart as they navigate various spaces with confidence and determination.

Despite their qualities, Black women face different challenges in reaching leadership roles, particularly board positions, as highlighted by the findings from the DiversityLeads 2020 report. Led by DI and supported by TD, the 2020 report showed that of 1,600 board members across the country’s largest corporations, only 14 were Black. These findings have informed policies and programs to advance diversity in senior management and on boards, including the 50 – 30 Challenge (external link) . Funded by the Government of Canada, the Challenge seeks to increase gender parity (50% women and/or non-binary people) and significant representation (30%) of individuals from other equity-deserving groups on Canadian boards and/or in senior leadership. 

Spencer said that barriers include limited access to resources and training, hindering women’s ability to be prepared for leadership roles. “When we are not prepared, you sort of self-select out of the environment … it just perpetuates the cycle as a key barrier,” Spencer said.

This is backed up by research from the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) (external link) . For example, The State of Women’s Entrepreneurship in Canada 2023 (external link)  report showed that lack of access to mentorship and well-established business networks further isolates Black women entrepreneurs, depriving them of valuable guidance and connections. Another study found that Black women entrepreneurs face racism and discrimination (external link) .

The panel also addressed imposter syndrome, a feeling that arises when a person doubts their abilities and achievements and fears being seen as inadequate. This is a common feeling among Black women; it often affects their confidence and leads them to question their capabilities. To combat this, the panellists suggested that workplaces can cultivate an environment that recognizes the skills and contributions of each individual. By addressing these challenges and fostering a supportive workplace, Black women can have more access to leadership positions, panellists noted.

The challenges that Black women and other racialized groups face are addressed in research like Labour Market Implications for Racialized Youth and Employment Equity in the Labour Market from the Future Skills Centre (FSC) (external link) . The research from FSC illustrates the ongoing systemic racism, unequal access to education and training opportunities, and devaluation of international credentials that contribute to the inequity within Canada's labour market. This research emphasizes the need to address systemic discrimination that disadvantages various equity-deserving groups, including Black women, in their employment and career development. Despite the challenges that exist, the panellists shared their determination to succeed and their commitment to breaking down barriers for future generations of Black women entrepreneurs.

One initiative designed to address the challenges that the Black community face is DI’s Advanced Digital and Professional Training (ADaPT) program for Black Youth (external link) , which provides Black youth with the skills they need to succeed in the digital economy. Additionally, in line with the ADaPT program, the Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) recently partnered with the Peel District School Board (PDSB) to host a business pitch competition for Black students. These types of programs and initiatives can create opportunities for Black youth to learn new skills, expand their networks and receive support along their professional journies. 

Building confidence emerged as a theme during the event. The key to building confidence is knowing one's knowledge and skills as assets for success. Preparation, research and continuous learning can strengthen self-confidence. Nancy Mitchell, senior program manager at the Diversity Institute, spoke to how she builds confidence: “Knowing that when I come to a space, I don't come mediocre. I know that I did my research.” Mitchell expressed the importance of surrounding herself with the right people. "I hang around people who support me, uplift me,” she said. “That's part of the confidence."

Onagbeboma also emphasized the importance of knowing one’s worth. “When I walk into any space as a leader, I'm not expecting people to tell me who I am because you will meet people who will try to tell you who you're not,” she said. “So, it's hugely important to know who you are.”

The panellists stressed the importance of mentorship and sponsorship in supporting Black women leaders. For organizations, it means identifying and fostering relationships with mentors who can offer guidance and support. As shared by Susan Swayze, associate professor of educational research at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University (external link) , mentorship is a good tool that can provide Black women with the confidence and skills to excel. Aspiring entrepreneurs are encouraged to remain open to different perspectives and diverse backgrounds. “Find a mentor who really believes in you as a person,” Swayze said. Sometimes, mentors might not look like you or be in the same industry, but their guidance and support can be useful. Additionally, sponsorship involves actively promoting and advocating for Black women in leadership roles, and creating opportunities for them to showcase their expertise. 

As the discussion continued, pay equity emerged as a critical factor. Black women often receive lower salaries compared to their counterparts (external link) . Swayze expressed that addressing pay equity is not only about fair compensation, it is also about recognizing the skills and contributions of Black women and ensuring their work is acknowledged.

Participants were given the chance to ask questions of the panellists. An immigration consultant raised the issue of Black and non-European immigrants facing barriers in Canada. They questioned how to mobilize and advocate for equal opportunities for skilled immigrants from Africa and other regions. In response, Spencer highlighted the importance of collective efforts in advocating for change and creating equal opportunities for all immigrants. "Join organizations like ours [BBPA]. Continue on that path; continue to have your voices heard, and work with allies to help amplify your voice," she said. Spencer also shared the importance of understanding one's rights, accessing available resources, and seeking mentorship and sponsorship.

Another participant shared their experiences in a predominantly white workplace, expressing feelings of isolation and insecurity. They shared their attempts at trying to fit in and having difficulties in embracing their authentic self. In response, Onagbeboma said, “Never dim your light, because when you are shrinking yourself to fit into a space that you've already outgrown, then you're never going to grow.” Onagbeboma also shared the importance of not shaping oneself to fit into certain environments. By embracing your authentic self, you can attract like-minded individuals or workplaces who will like you for who you are and support you, even when you least expect it, she said.

A main takeaway was the significance of collaboration over competition. As Black women leaders, Onagbeboma emphasized that it is important to support each other, recognizing that there is enough influence, wisdom and success for everyone. Another takeaway was the power of recognizing and celebrating the achievements of fellow Black women. 

“The best thing that I can do to help others is to constantly be putting other people's names forward,” Swayze said. Putting other women’s names forward will allow their accomplishments to gain visibility and can serve as inspiration for others within Black communities, she said.