A Black woman with curly hair looking down into the camera with a knowing look on her face.
Image credit: Jeffery Erhunse on Unsplash

In our workplaces, the pursuit of perfection often overshadows showing up authentically, especially for Black women. Long have we, as Black women, realized that the adage “work twice as hard to get half as far” is more than mere words: it becomes our lived reality and an unrelenting burden.

In our research for the Black Women Thriving Report, we posed this question: “What were the earliest messages that you received about success?” Repeatedly, we encountered the sentiment that Black women must work doubly hard for half the pay, promotions, and recognition. This daunting belief has persisted from our grandparents to our children, shaping us in ways that we can and cannot understand. Over time, it has evolved from working twice as hard to also doing so perfectly under all circumstances and in every environment. In other words, Black women are expected to embody excellence and perfection and nothing less.

The “Strong Black Woman” Stereotype

The adage “work twice as hard to get half as far” is more than mere words: it becomes our lived reality and an unrelenting burden.

In recent years, there has been research and discussion about who can show up authentically at work. For many BIPOC workers, being asked to show up authentically creates apprehension. Our study revealed that fewer than half of Black women feel they can be authentic in the workplace without jeopardizing their positions. The reasons for this ranged from fear of being tokenized to feeling overly scrutinized to having to combat perceptions about competence. This pressure to perform, to consistently excel without any mistakes, leaves Black women with little room to be authentically themselves.

Black women’s anticipatory fear of discrimination and bias reinforces a need to perform exceptionally well. They wear it as a shield. The heightened scrutiny of Black women and systemic enforcement of “Whiteness” in organizations compound this pressure because Black women feel compelled to challenge ingrained prejudices and biases that cast them as less capable or professional than their White or male counterparts.

When an organization is failing, Black women leaders are more likely to be blamed.

Additionally, the “strong Black woman” stereotype contributes to our pressure for excellence and perfection by fostering an expectation that Black women must always be strong, independent, and resilient at work. This often translates to Black women setting exceedingly high standards for themselves and experiencing heightened stress and anxiety when they inevitably fall short of unrealistic expectations. This interplay between the desire to excel, the fear of negative judgment for not meeting high standards, and the pressure of stereotypes creates a vicious cycle of perfectionism.

Research has also found that when an organization is failing, Black women leaders are more likely to be blamed. For many Black women, the fear of making a mistake looms over their careers, contributing to burnout and other health concerns. Our research showed that 78 percent of Black women reported having no emotional reserves left at the end of the workday. As one participant wisely pointed out, “Black women will work tirelessly for the success of their organization, often to the detriment of their own well-being.”

The Call for Change

As organizations, leaders, and Black women, we cannot make visionary change happen in the long term if we are overwhelmed and burnt out in the short term. Too often, strategies for improving the workplace fall on the shoulders of Black women rather than the organizations they work for. We know that does not work and is simply unsustainable. This raises a critical question: What can organizations do to recognize and change their role in perpetuating these unrealistic standards? 

Organizations and leaders can focus on: 

1. Redefining excellence

    • As a leader, how do you balance the emphasis on authenticity, excellence, and wellbeing in your values and norms?  
    • What does authenticity mean in your organization? And how can you, as a leader, create a space that is safe for everyone to show up as themselves? 

2. Building cultures of trust and care

    • What are your organizational norms for promoting care among colleagues? 
    • If trust is a value at your organization, how can you provide feedback in ways that cultivate deep trust among your team?

3. Examining the role of perfectionism

    • How can your organization foster a culture that normalizes and rewards learning, making mistakes, and trying new approaches?
    • As leaders, what strategies can be implemented that cultivate a culture encouraging balance and self-compassion, rather than perpetuating a cycle of overachievement and excessive self-criticism?

There is a growing emphasis on the vital role of self-compassion for Black women, especially at work. Research shows that self-compassion provides a buffer against the strain of biases, allowing for kinder self-reflection and awareness.

We cannot make visionary change happen in the long term if we are overwhelmed and burnt out.

Black women can consider:

1. Rewards and costs of excellence

    • How does my pursuit of excellence impact my mental health and overall wellbeing, and how does it align with my personal and professional goals?
    • How can I acknowledge the internalized messaging I have received about “working twice as hard” with compassion, understanding the potential impact it has had on my wellbeing and self-perception?

2. Authenticity

    • How do I define my authentic self and what helps me express it at work? 
    • How can I cultivate reciprocal and trusting relationships that transcend task-oriented interactions but also support healthy boundaries? 

3. Prioritizing self-compassion and wellbeing

    • When reflecting about work, how am I acknowledging my feelings and experiences without criticizing myself?
    • Who is in my supportive network that I can turn to for encouragement, advice, or simply to share that makes me feel safe and understood?

The prevailing advice of “work twice as hard to get twice as far” has woven itself into the fabric of Black women’s professional journeys, shaping not only their careers but their lives. Instituting change means that organizations need to examine how they are perpetuating unrealistic standards as both expectations and messaging. 

At the same time, Black women who prioritize self-care and challenging societal narratives can pave the way for a more sustainable future for themselves. It is a collective journey toward embracing authenticity, challenging perfectionism, and redefining success to create workplaces where all individuals can thrive.