Why women of color take more risks in the workplace

Sometimes risk-taking is the only way you can level the playing field.
Sometimes risk-taking is the only way you can level the playing field.
Image: AP Photo/Michael Thomas
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Working hard. Crossing every T. Being organized.

These task-oriented attributes are the keys to personal and professional success, according to most women in the corporate world.

Risk-taking, on the other hand? Not so much.

Risk-taking is inherent to everything we do to get ahead in our careers. And when you’re a woman, sometimes it’s the only way we can level the playing field.

The 2019 KPMG Women’s Leadership Study showed that while 55% of women believe people who take more career risks progress more quickly than others, fewer than half are willing to take the bigger risks often associated with career advancement. This may be preventing many women from reaching their potential as business leaders.

There is a surprising caveat, though. Women of color are significantly more open to taking risks to advance their careers—57% compared to just 38% of white women.

Why this disparity?

Women of color are accustomed to being only one of few—or the only one—in many corporate settings. Women have a tough enough time in the workplace, but people of color have to lean in to this discomfort to promote themselves even more.

Despite acknowledging the positive outcomes risk-taking can produce, we often hesitate. For women, perhaps this is due to concerns with the perception of peers and supervisors. A woman who takes the risk to lead a new company division or start her own business may be perceived as overconfident, bossy, or even unqualified. One study found that more than half of women are singled out or excluded because of their gender, race, and/or ethnicity on a regular basis.

For women of color, the emotional tax of being the only one, or one of the few, has always existed inside and outside of the workplace. Despite representing 18.5% of employees in the S&P 500, women of color make up less than 5% of executive or senior-level officials and managers. Of Fortune 500 companies, there are only two women of color who are CEOs.

There is another factor in the willingness to take more risks among women of color: the belief in their ability to overcome failure.

An alarming number of women overall—more than 85%—said that they have become subsequently more cautious when they have failed at an on-the-job initiative in the past. For example, if a woman takes a risk to move to another department and receives no support from her manager or HR, she might be less likely to raise her hand for a big project or leadership opportunity.

This perception changes among women of color. In our study, 77% say they are resilient when they fail, and 54% say they have no regrets in taking a risk that failed, because lessons learned have ultimately helped them move ahead. Women of color have been groomed from early on to work extra hard to overcome barriers—so even when there is failure, they must stand up and persevere.

Success is the result of confidence as much as it is competence. Understanding the benefit of taking risks—even if the ultimate outcome is not the intended result—helps build the confidence to raise your hand and be heard.

We therefore need to work against the grain of our comfort zones and take bigger risks. That means speaking up when it’s uncomfortable, raising our hands for that stretch assignment, asking for a raise, asking for feedback, and seeking that promotional opportunity.

The first step to working out which risks to take is understanding your own personal career aspirations and identifying the technical and leadership skills you need to get there. From there, ask for what you want. Start small with asking for a new assignment, then build up to taking the lead on an upcoming project. Push past your comfort zone and prove to yourself that you can succeed in the goals you set. The more risks you successfully navigate, the more confident you’ll become, and the more risks you’ll be willing to take.

As women, we have more opportunities than ever to create our own corporate legacy. Working hard and mastering basic skills are essential. But so, too, are taking bold and calculated steps outside our comfort zone. It’s worth the risk to take a risk.