News / Halifax

Black in Halifax: Senator says Black women face 'concrete ceiling'

Nova Scotia Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard says there are few opportunities for Black women to advance into senior leadership roles.

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard.

Facebook / Toronto Star File

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard.

Black women who qualify for leadership positions in the public sector aren’t just facing a glass ceiling.

It’s a concrete ceiling.

Those are the findings of a qualitative study recently undertaken by Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, a social worker, educator and activist from East Preston.

“The project grew out of some concerns that were brought to my attention when I was chair of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women,” she said.

“It was really about the lack of progress in terms of Black women being able to advance in the public service, but we broadened it to look at the public sector because there are so few Black women in the public service.”

While the study didn’t involve any numbers, Bernard said two overarching themes emerged through analysis of the data. The first was that there were few if any real opportunities for Black women to advance into senior leadership roles. The second was that African Canadian women often succeed against the odds.

The study was funded by the advisory council on the status of women and supported by African Nova Scotian Affairs and the Nova Scotia Association of Black Social Workers.

Bernard said they reached out to Black women over the age of 25 who were qualified to hold senior leadership positions and/or those who were aspiring to such positions.

Twenty-one women of African descent with roots in Nova Scotia or who live in Nova Scotia came forward to share their stories.

“Are we where we need to be with women in the workplace and in leadership? No. But Black women are even further behind,” Bernard said.

“With a concrete ceiling you know you will never break through that, no matter how hard you work, no matter how many of you work together to break through, it is just that much more difficult, that much more challenging.”

On Nov. 20, she presented her findings at Halifax City Hall to a group called Diverse Voices for Change. As a researcher she said it was gratifying that many of the 100 people who attended were Black women who fit the profile of those she’d interviewed.

They told her the study’s findings had validated their own experiences of systemic racism and sexism in their employment.

“Some of them talked publicly, some of them talked to me privately, and they said things like ‘I thought this was all in my head. I thought that this meant that I was a failure,’” Bernard said.

“Some women even talked about moving across the country and to other places, being willing to do anything to get a break. That’s important for us to know. We need to hear that this is the reality that many women face.”

Bernard said the second theme that emerged through the study was the fact there were support systems in place to help women, and that there was optimism about the future.

“The overarching theme around supports I found particularly gave me a lot of hope. People talked about having supports outside the workplace and also supports inside the workplace,” Bernard said.

“They talked about systems and structures that could be put in place inside the workplace that can help women break through that concrete ceiling. It’s important to identify this so we can move forward.”

This story is part of Metro's ongoing Black in Halifax series. Let us know your thoughts on the series, and share your own stories using the hashtag #HalifaxWhileBlack with tweets, Instagram posts and Facebook comments. We may just share it in a future edition.

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