Being Tokenized in the Workplace Is Bad for Black Women's Health

As president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, Linda Goler Blount is making sure companies stay true to the anti-racism promises they made in 2020 — because she knows that lives depend on it.

Linda Goler Blount
Photo: Courtesy Black Women’s Health Imperative

As president and CEO of the Black Women's Health Imperative, tackling the issues affecting Black women's health in America is central to Linda Goler Blount's mission. Lately, that's meant coming up with a strategy to combat the damaging effects of inequity in the workplace.

According to a study conducted by the BWHI, Black women report stress as their top health concern. As the pandemic raged on throughout the summer of 2020 and exposed racial disparities in health outcomes, the nation, in lockdown, turned its attention to George Floyd and the scores of Black people in the U.S. killed by police. A number of corporations attempted to address the issues by starting workplace dialogues on anti-racism and making accountability pledges, which resulted in many Black employees feeling the burden of becoming the unofficial spokespeople and educators for newly enlightened and curious colleagues. Goler Blount tells InStyle that more and more, women were reaching out to the BWHI to say they found their stress compounded by the situation at hand.

"We're hearing from women in companies and corporations on almost a daily basis about how hard it is to constantly be reminded of this violence, to be asked to represent Black people in the workplace, to help their coworkers understand the Defund the Police movement, or why COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting the Black population," says Goler Blount. "This is so relevant because racial and gendered discrimination has a causal relationship between uterine fibroid tumors and their severity, low birth weight babies, maternal mortality, and the body's inflammatory response. We talk about the epigenetic expression of stress — it's hundreds of years of changes at the DNA level that results in it getting expressed the way it does, so that's of course bad for women, but from a corporate perspective it drives up healthcare costs."

We're hearing from women in companies and corporations on almost a daily basis about how hard it is to constantly be reminded of this violence, to be asked to represent Black people in the workplace, to help their coworkers understand.

Goler Blount hopes to draw attention to the line between the structural racism in workplaces across the country and poorer health outcomes for Black women.

"If we can create the fairest environment that literally allows us to reduce the cortisol levels in our bloodstream, we can reduce those rates of chronic disease, of uterine fibroid tumors, maternal mortality, and create a more welcoming work experience, which leads to better health outcomes," she says.

We spoke with Goler Blount as part of August's Badass 50 on her work facilitating the transition of BWHI's seminars to virtual platforms during the COVID-19 shutdowns, as Black women hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic turned to the organization for resources regarding their health and wellness. Now, as we start to emerge from isolation and begin a slow return to "normal," she is determined to make sure that corporate America maintains its focus on the issues that drove the national conversation last summer.

Goler Blount and her team have developed a workplace equity initiative aimed at charting the progress of these businesses who lined up to issue statements and anti-racism commitments to their staff and the public. The campaign debuted in September and will see the BWHI create a set of standards by which corporations can measure their own fairness.

"The effort is built around understanding and developing policies and procedures for fairness and the methods for evaluating it so that companies, those who said, 'Oh, we're outraged at this,' now have the tools to say, 'Here's what we're doing to make sure we've got a fair workplace,'" Goler Blount says. This set of tools will allow prospective employees to see what companies are doing to achieve equity, to track their progress toward this goal, and above all keep things transparent. "Transparency will allow the world to see that they're actually doing something, measuring it, and are not afraid to share successes — and perhaps even failures — and bring everybody along on the journey for progress toward fairness," she adds.

They'll be collecting information examining equity through a set of indicators, including the promotion of women of color over time, how recruitment is taking place, and how long people tend to stay in their roles.

While Black women and women of color are central to the campaign's data collection and analysis, Goler Blount urges people from all demographics to sign up on BWHI's website so that questionnaires and information on the initiative are circulated more widely, as developing a standard for fairness requires information on the lived experiences of workers across all races, ethnicities, and genders. The campaign's research will inform the creation of an index, which will be rolled out in December.

Workplace wellness services have been in place for decades, but Goler Blount feels they've often fallen short in connecting with people who don't see themselves reflected in the programming. She believes this new campaign has the power to provide not only clarity for both for corporations and employees on how much a workplace values equity, but also a path forward.

"I'm really excited about the ability to connect what happens in the workplace to Black women's health," she says. "This will give corporations a new set of practices and tools to revamp their own workplace wellness programs but also to really understand what fairness looks like in their workplace and how it contributes to a more positive environment for all their employees."

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