Breaking the Glass

Understanding the barriers faced by Black Women Professionals in career progression.

Partner overview

She Leads for Legacy (SLL) is a community of Black Female Professionals working in partnership with a range of organisations to accelerate established and aspiring Black female leaders into Senior Leadership positions.

Project details: This project was completed in Spring 2021 as part of the Collaboration Labs programme, a PhD research consultancy programme created by REALab, with funding from the ESRC, the NWCDTP and the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester.

The challenge


This project aimed to understand the barriers faced by Black professional women (BPW) in advancing into leadership positions. Overall, Black women are underrepresented at leadership levels. The absence of their voice and presence in these positions results in key decisions being made without their influence or input. The resolutions which emerge from these unbalanced spaces ultimately shape organisational culture, and thereby BPW’s lives. 

Research team

  • Francisca Alvarez-Figueroa, PhD researcher, Global Development Institute, Faculty of Humanities, The University of Manchester
  • Lydia Nelson, PhD researcher, School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Humanities, The University of Manchester
  • Fernanda Teixeira, PhD researcher, AMBS, Faculty of Humanities, The University of Manchester
  • Salwa Alhalafi, PhD researcher, Faculty of Humanities, Educational Research Department, University of Lancaster.

The solution

The Research Team conducted a three-pronged research approach, carrying out a comprehensive literature review, a bespoke online survey with 75 BPW, and interviews with nine BPW. Drawing from these, the team were able to identify the main barriers faced by BPW, which will aid in raising awareness of this under researched challenge and support She Leads For Legacy in their design of solutions to overcome this group's unique barriers.

Outputs from the project were a comprehensive research report, which included a set of infographics for the partner for use on social media and in other communications. The team also creates a website for the project, which was used to engage stakeholders and a wider audience. 

Outcomes and impact

The research highlighted the multidimensional barriers faced by BPW, identifying three distinct overarching factors: individual, organisational and social. A fourth, the construct of race and its impact, ran across all three. Consequently, it became evident that BPW face more than a racialised glass ceiling; they contend against a concrete ceiling, that is a barrier of immense opacity that looks almost impenetrable to breaching, requiring specific skills, instruments and force for breakthrough.

The project outputs has equipped the partner with precise data, analysis and recommendations which will facilitate, support and strengthen them across the three strands of their work: Connectivity, Development and Amplification. The project does so not only in terms of their work with one sector of their audience; it will help to advance their work with BPW, employers, allies, and also equips them to work alongside other organisations seeking to support BPW across the UK.

With the project now completed, the Research Team and the partner are now collaborating further to publish a version of the research report and take it to a conference for wider dissemination and engagement. Additionally, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) have expressed an interest in the report and potentially including it in their listings. Furthermore, the Ressearch Team was contacted to provide support and insight about the topic by the Strategic Funding Manager and Operations Manager for the Christabel Pankhurst Institute for Health Technology Research and Innovation at the University of Manchester.

ESRC Festival of Social Sciences 2021

The Research team and She Leads for Legacy collaborated on a workshop with Hannah Murray, Collaboration Labs, and the Work and Equalities Institute for the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences 2021: The Safe Place: Building a safe space for active and effective listening.

They led a workshop on the barriers faced by Black Professional Women in career progression; taking forward; a key recommendation of the report by supporting organisations to build safe spaces for sharing and listening around race and gender.

The workshop featured the launch of a short documentary based on the research findings (produced FreshRB C.I.C), an interactive panel discussion, and a toolkit with practical recommendations to better support the development of Black female colleagues and address racial tensions in the workplace. The free, virtual workshop was an interactive space for sharing, learning, and empowering new conversations, with insights from an expert panel:

  • Dr Jenny K Rodriguez, Senior Lecturer in Employment Studies, Chair of the Equality and Diversity Committee at Alliance Manchester Business School & founding member of Decolonizing Alliance
  • Dr Isabel Tavora, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management, Work and Equalities Institute, with expertise in how institutions can support female employment and advance gender equality in different countries;
  • Prof Julia Rouse, Lead of the Employment Working Group for GM4Women, Vice-Chair for Partnerships in the Gender and Enterprise Network, a Special Interest Group of the Institute of Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Julia is also the Former head of the Sylvia Pankhurst Gender Research Centre and a Member of the Women's Budget Group & Women and Enterprise Advisory Policy Group.
  • Ashanti Bentil-Dhue, An experienced events entrepreneur, diversity expert, researcher, and speaker. Ashanti heads up the team at EventMind. She’s also a co-founder of the global network, Black In Events and Diversity Ally, a consultancy that helps the events industry become more diverse in its culture, image, and people.

In the media

Read the report

We are thrilled with the final Research Report, as it comprehensively examines and analyses the hurdles that stifle BPW in the workplace, whilst making realistic and practical recommendations for organisations, employers and staff. Huge thank you to Fernanda, Fran, Lydia and Salwa for their tireless efforts – they have gone above and beyond in producing a thorough and considered research report. We have thoroughly enjoyed working with a team of researchers who are passionate about social change and willing to explore the ways in which equality can be achieved by all for all. 


Sharon Amesu / She Leads for Legacy Director

The project offered a range of both professional and personal development opportunities for the team. Highly valued was the opportunity to bring our research skills and knowledge to bear on a very timely, real world challenge, which will make a definite difference through its support of an active and pioneering NGO. Additionally, it was a privilege to be able to be exposed to the person and work of living changemakers, people of inspiration, passion and action: Sharon and Afiya at She Leads For Legacy.

Lydia Nelson / The University of Manchester