Video: Black Women on the Challenges and Opportunities of the Past 18 Months

Ellen Bailey, Vice President of Diversity and Culture at Harvard Business Publishing, discovered that her feelings over the past 18-months of fatigue and stress were not a sign of failure. She also realized that she was not alone in her feelings. Ellen talked with her colleagues about the pressures involved in helping to solve these problems, as Black women have been at center of many discussions on racial inequality and injustice at work. It can be very rewarding and invigorating to take on such important work. However, it can also cause exhaustion and feelings of fatigue. Ellen speaks with Octavia Goredema, a career coach, and Laura Morgan Roberts, an organizational psychologist, about how to balance self-care and the pressure to be a good person for others.

People of color, especially Black women, have suffered a lot from the events of the past 18 months, which included the pandemic, a renewed reckoning about racial inequality and injustice, and other social unrest. I believed that stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and fatigue were all part of me and that I couldn't manage them all.

As I spoke with other Black women professionals such as Octavia Goredema, a career coach, and Laura Morgan Roberts, an organizational psychologist, I discovered that I wasn't the only one. We shared our feelings and commiserated over our sleepless nights.

It wasn't just me. I decided to do something about it. I invited Laura and Octavia to join me for a candid discussion about the stress and fatigues that we, and many others, have experienced. Our Zoom chat was recorded. During the conversation, we talked about how to take care of ourselves as well as ideas for organizations that can better support Black female employees. The video of the conversation is below, with a transcript available below.


ELLEN BAILEY (Hello, Ellen Bailey), Vice President for Diversity and Culture, Harvard Business Publishing. It is an honor to be joined today by two amazing people. We have Octavia Gordema, the author of Prep, push, Pivot, as well as Laura Morgan Roberts, a workplace psychologist. We are grateful for your presence today.

OCTAVIA GOREDEMA - We are grateful for your presence.

LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS : It's great to be here.

ELLEN BAILEY - We are here because the crisis and the pandemic over the last 18 months have really taken a toll on women, particularly Black women. The reason we are all here today is that, just as I would have one on ones with Octavia, and Laura, you two significantly helped me get through that era and continue to have the energy and drive to go forward.

There is a gender and racial gap for Black women. It's not easy to be Black and a woman. This intersection is crucial because it allows us to be Black and a woman.

How can we balance stress, fatigue, and pressure with the responsibility to do well for others and right the ship?

Laura, the first time we connected one-on-1, I asked you how you were doing. I tried to be energetic and smile, but you looked straight at me and said, "I'm exhausted." I can remember feeling validated and able to put my head in my hands, saying, "Oh, my god, that's me too."

LAURA MORGANROBERTS: Ellen, yes, I feel a deep, profound resonance for your words. That conversation is something I still remember. Although we had planned to discuss strategic initiatives and how we could collaborate to advance the work, it felt like we should have just gotten to know each other and check in to see how we were doing. The most disturbing aspect of the last 18 months was that we were thrown into a frenzy, with so many stakes. On the one hand, I felt like Im watching people on Instagram and other sites talking about how much bread they bake and what kind of quarantine projects are they doing. I was like, "What's the deal?" I'm in a can't stop, wont quit phase. Organizations, CEOs and boards of directors wanted to have discussions about race and racism. This would allow them to move on into conversations about equity, exclusion, injustice, belongingness, and equity.

We looked around at those conversations many times and saw that there were often Black and brown women leading them. Then, we were assigned to help develop solutions to these issues and challenges. In a nutshell, it was exhausting. It was exhilarating at times and it was invigorating at other times. It was extremely impactful. We must be aware of the toll this type work can take on us. As you have mentioned, battle fatigue.

ELLEN BAILEY - It is both highs and lows. There are days when I feel so energized that I can't stop thinking about it. You witnessed some change. You witnessed some movement. Someone in your meeting had an a-ha moment and you were like, yes. There are also the days when there is something else in the news or it doesnt work out as well. You are absolutely right.

And Octavia: When I spoke with you one-on-1, I would get right into the work. But you would always pause to ask me Ellen, how are your days? You would always ask me how I was doing, even if we were on video calls. It felt like you really cared and wanted to know. If I did, I would smile and say, "Oh, I'm fine." I'm fine. You would be like, "No, really, how are your feelings?" That is what I do with my work.

OCTAVIA GOREDEMA : Thank you Ellen. It's a lot. It's a lot. It was because we were all located in different parts. We all had different experiences because we are not all having the same experience. As a career coach, I have seen how many Black women are struggling. You were making such beautiful work earlier. Maybe we were operating in survival mode for too long. That is what I feel. Right now, my heart is heavy.

It feels like I have been dealing with so many things last year. In terms of all the challenges we faced as a nation, the pandemic, trying to keep afloat and the work required, as a mother of 2 daughters trying to navigate through all that. Now, I am realizing that we were exhausted, as many others are.

It almost feels like a delayed response to all the things weve gone through. It can feel different for everyone. It's something I have been paying close attention to, and how it feels inside. Stress can show up in many different ways. Understanding and paying attention to our feelings is crucial. Trusting your gut and feeling okay with it is also important. We are not okay right now.

ELLEN BAILEY : Thank you, Octavia for being so honest and authentic. It affects us all in different ways. Back to the workload. Laura and I both mentioned it. We are all passionate about doing everything we can. It is important to take a step back. It is a terrible skill. It's like I just want to go, go and go.

OCTAVIA GOREEMA: This moment is so important, but we also know that this is a life-changing journey. This is the journey of a lifetime. From my perspective, I can see that a lot of what I have had to deal with is the many things that I let slip in my work and my career, and how it has made me realize that we cannot do that anymore. It is important to remember that this moment is just the beginning of what's to come.

Our health and well-being are the most valuable resources we have. We have to safeguard that. This must be protected at all cost. It is difficult to manage expectations, especially our own, I believe. Laura, I would love to hear your thoughts. What are your thoughts on this? It is difficult to do all of these things simultaneously. How do you manage that?

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LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS : It is a very important question. This is a difficult question because life never stops. There has been so much that has happened in politics and socially. This includes from a perspective of public health and the economy. Yet, life did not stop. It didn't stop in all aspects of everyday life.

Children went through puberty at an unstoppable pace. My household is no exception. The end of marriages didn't come to an abrupt halt. My household was not one of them. Even though we were miles apart, parents getting sick didn't stop. I couldn't fly to be there for them. All of these things happen simultaneously.

Octavia asks me the question: Where is my center? Is there a center of gravity in my body? Because life seems so urgent, what is the most important thing to me? However, I need to decide what priority I want and how I can bring my best to whatever I sign up for.

Do I want to work from sunup until sundown stacking Zooms or Webexs, because it is technically possible? This year, I made the decision that I was not going to continue doing this. It was a year long, but I'm going to allow myself some transition time between meetings. I will cut it off at specific times of the day. If my body tells me that I'm tired, I accept it. So I press pause, pick it up tomorrow even if its urgent for someone else.

OCTAVIA GOREDEMA : I like what you have to say about setting boundaries. It can be very hard. Here's the thing that I find bittersweet about this year: there is a lot of attention on Black women. Maybe that's why so many of us can see the potential. People are now paying more attention.

People are suddenly reaching out to Ellen and asking if they can do it. Hey, Octavia. Would you like to do this? Laura, would you be able to join us? Some of these things are simply impossible to accomplish. It is so, so hard. It is so, so hard, especially when there are so many of us.

We know representation is important, as well as being role models and where we present ourselves. We can't do it all at once. This was a difficult lesson that I learned this past year while homeschooling and writing a book and supporting other families. We might ask ourselves, "How are we?" But, in reality, it is not so simple. When we aren't doing well, and others around us aren't doing well, it takes so much of us to lend that support.

Laura, I'd love to work with you. You work with many organizations and I have the privilege of working with many professionals. What are some ways employers could be aware of Black women and offer support?

LAURA MORGANROBERTS: Yes, this is a tricky question because Black women have, for many generations, been required to support everyone and be caregivers to everyone. If you look at the top ten occupations and roles in the US for Black women, and many other women of color of any race, seven of the top occupations are caregiving. It's in the healthcare industries. It is in the service industry. We also see high levels of representation in teaching when we look at college degrees. We know what has been happening in our schools for the past 18 months.

Black women find it difficult to say no to their challenges.

Organizations can then attempt to fix the root cause of exhaustion. Next, let's get to the support part. If we start with the support part, then we will just continue this perpetuating cycle. The root cause of exhaustion must be addressed.

We've discussed two things today when it comes to the workload. The first is the performance. You have to work twice as hard and not get the top assignments and roles. Managers and organizations can help Black women and other members of marginalized communities to succeed. You can help them get plum assignments with high success rates and well-resourced. Glass-cliff leadership assignments are generally given to black and female CEOs. This means that there is a lot at stake, there's a high chance of failure, limited resources, and they are expected to succeed. Set them up for success.

Second, recognize the contribution they make to the organization. We are aware of a persistent wage gap. Black women's equal pay day falls in August. This is the month when Black women earn on average the same amount as their white male counterparts in January for similar work. There is a gap, and it continues to exist. This leads to more exhaustion because Black women have to work harder to support their families and get paid fairly for the work they do. Many of the pressures that come with being a head of household can be relieved by organizations.

Then, when it comes down to DEI work, and as Ellen noted, it was often Black women who were being weighed down by that work. Stephanie Creary and her colleagues from the Wharton School conducted a recent study in collaboration with several companies that found that Black women are more likely to raise awareness about diversity, equity and inclusion. However, there is other evidence that Black women and women from other backgrounds are often penalized for participating in diversity, equity and inclusion work. This counts against them in the context of being evaluated for bonuses or promotions. Support tangibly means acknowledging and rewarding all contributions, particularly those made by Black women in their official roles.

OCTAVIA GOREDEMA : I found so much of what you shared to be very resonant with me. The data speaks for itself, as you stated. It is important to recognize what you need at work, and what support and investment we need to make that happen.

It's also about having the courage to fail. That is a difficult thing to do. You often don't realize how much you have to carry when you struggle through your career. We need that permission from ourselves. That permission is essential. It is so important to have grace.

LAURA MORGANROBERTS: I have been thinking a lot about what this means over the last couple of months. What does this mean for Black women working in organizations? Managers need to be compassionate when Black women say, "My plate is full." I am so sorry. Sorry, I cannot get back to your email. What is compassion?

ELLEN BAILEY (Yes, it is tough. I'm guilty of accepting projects and assignments even though I don't have the physical and mental capacity to complete them. I fear that if I say no you won't be given another assignment. So, going back to what organizations can do, they can set clear expectations. There is no retribution for saying no, even if it's not right now. It's okay to say no. Leaders and managers can still say it's okay and then give grace and say we will get back to you. Let me know what you think is a good time. We want to ensure that you have these chances, too.

OCTAVIA GOREDEMA (Yes, it is difficult at the moment because we can feel disappointed for ourselves if we are not where we want to be. Even though we are not world leaders or athletes, there are still many people who rely on us. Because there are so few of us out there, people look up to us for our work.

The truth is that no one knows your career like you do. You are the only one who is as invested in your career as you are in yourself. This doesn't mean you have to be there all the time. This means that you will need to take a break and reevaluate your approach. It is a long journey. We don't want to burn ourselves out or break. What happens next if we are burned out? What message do we send to others?

LAURA MORGAN ROBERTS - We have to see those actions not as signs of weakness, flaws, or inadequacies. This has been a tough 18-month test to reframe what it means to be powerful and strong. It's not about giving evidence to the naysayers. I said she couldn't handle it. I said she wasn't strong enough. This is strength. This is power. Knowing who I am at the best and how I can make a difference in the world, knowing my limits and what I need to do for myself to be healthy and live with integrity are all part of this.

ELLEN BAILEY: I had a friend share with me years ago that, Laura, I was carrying too much baggage. These were things that were still in my back from years ago. She said that a colleague of mine years ago had said to her, Ellen, how much longer are you going to keep those rocks in your backpack? Let them go.

Then, according to your point, you become stronger because I am now lighter. I can push harder. I can push myself harder. I am better at taking care of myself. I must hydrate on the hike. Let those things go, and I will allow myself to continue on lighter and more enjoyable.

When we think about the values of organizations, and how to partner with organizations that allow me to say no, I think it is also important. They let me take care of my own health, which allows me to do the self-care, Octavia. Let's rethink this. From my perspective, Harvard Business Publishing has been challenged to do more. We need to work together to be better, to support all our employees, but to take a closer look at Black employees in order to make sure they are doing the right thing.

LAURA MORGANROBERTS: If we were designing around Black women, we would give Black women special consideration. This is not true. In fact, we were strengthening and improving the organization for everyone.

ELLEN BAILEY says: If it works well for a Black woman, then that's your bar. It will then work for everyone.

OCTAVIA GOREDEMA - Perhaps the silver lining to all of our experiences is our understanding of what it takes for leaders and people to show empathy. Prep, Push and Pivot is my book. The final chapter is all about giving back. You may not know it Ellen, but you were actually paying it forward by checking in with me, and having our conversations. While we may feel exhausted and still trying to figure things out, we will continue to pay it forward by sharing what we have learned, what we are doing, and what we do. It's a powerful moment. It is a powerful moment. It is a powerful moment.

ELLEN BAILEY (Yes, absolutely). So, with that being said, I want you to thank each other for this honest conversation. Keep the conversation going between us and with others. Let's all take time to take a rest and take care ourselves so we can keep energized to help other people and organizations continue their great work. We are grateful to you both.