Policy solutions for increasing women of color in leadership

By Jessica Pinckney, Government Relations Manager, YWCA USA  

Today, 34 women in the House and four women in the Senate are women of color. Across the country, only 6 percent of elected officials are women of color. The numbers paint a stark picture for the diversity of our United States Congress, a body that is supposed to be representative of the broader population of the U.S., but clearly is not. On the occasions when the small contingent of women in Congress have come together around policy issues, they have had major success—proof that diversity amongst individuals within Congress makes a difference in the policy outcomes we see.

Unfortunately, the problem extends far beyond the halls of Congress. In board rooms, institutions of higher education, corporations and non-profits across the country, we see a shortage of women of color representation in leadership positions.

The lack of women of color in leadership positions is not just a diversity issue for diversity’s sake, it is an equity issue. Women of color in leadership, and equity as a whole, are integral to the success and progress of the country as a whole. Not only that, research has shown that diversity in leadership is good for company and workplace moral and is good for the bottom line. Companies with diverse leadership are more likely to be successful financially.

Even while we see minimal diversity in Congress itself, they have the power to drastically improve the conditions within the workplace and education systems, nationwide, which are crucial to building the pipeline of women of color in leadership across fields.

Congress can support policies like paid family leave and flexible work schedules that enable women to successfully navigate their multi-faceted roles in the workplace and at home while preserving opportunities for leadership. Being able to rise through the leadership pipeline doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Women, and women of color specifically, need employers that accommodate the varied needs in the workplace and the home and allow the flexibility for work-life balance to allow women to be leaders in the home and the workplace.

Akin to the need for strong policies around leave, flexible work schedules and fair pay, is the need for workplaces free from bias and discrimination. Women of color cannot reach for leadership positions when the “playing field” is not level.  A Center for Women Policy Studies’ report found that nearly a quarter of women of color did not feel they were free to be “themselves at work” and at least one third of women of color believed they had to “play down” their race or ethnicity in order to be successful. Concrete workplace standards and policies to reduce discrimination and biases in hiring, promotions and leadership development are tangible policies to level the leadership playing field. Workplace and federal policies that promote equitable workplaces, especially equal pay for equal work, are a simple step towards workplace fairness.

Lastly, adequate enforcement of current federal policies and increasing the collection of data around diversity are positive steps Congress can take to ensure women of color have ample opportunity to rise to leadership positions. Enforcement of Title IX, the Department of Education policy which prohibits sex discrimination in education and sexual harassment and assault in schools and on campuses, is integral to the success, safety and security of women at all levels.  Documenting disparities in educational opportunity that impact achievement and long-term economic success for girls of color through the Civil Rights Data Collection is similarly important.

Increased documentation of the extent of women’s leadership is also crucial to addressing problems in the leadership pipeline.  Recognizing effective strategies for increasing leadership by women of color in the workforce, and highlighting sponsorship/mentorship programs, implicit bias training and other best practices for promoting gender and racial equity in leadership are all things Congress can promote both internally, by example, and externally through federal legislation. Within the Administration, the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau is particularly well-suited to tracking this data and documenting effective strategies and best practices.

We are at a moment in time when the presence of women of color in leadership positions would be a valuable asset to the country at large. We need diverse minds at the table in every room, at every table, across every field to solve the issues that the country continues to face in all sectors. Women of color have a unique perspective on all issues and deserve a seat at the table to contribute to the future of this country.

Congress has the power and control to improve workplace standards and policies to ensure women of color are not logjammed in their quest to attain such leadership positions and they should act now to make this a reality.


April 27-30 marks YWCA’s 10th annual Stand Against Racism, and this year, we are focused on a very important theme: Women of Color Leading Change. Why? Because women of color lead change and have been leading change since the very beginning, but are far too often overlooked or silenced. We know that when women of color lead, positive change happens and everyone is lifted up.

Join us as we celebrate and honor women of color leaders and talk about the barriers that create racial and gender disparities to leadership. Together, let’s highlight and lift up stories of determined, fierce women of color leaders and trailblazers in our communities and throughout history! Visit http://standagainstracism.org/ to learn more. There, you can look up to see if there are any events near you, register to host your own event or gathering, sign the pledge to stand against racism, and more!