As women of color, we face unique challenges in the workplace and in business. Being double minorities in work environments in which we are often the “only ones in the room” comes with its share of obstacles. There’s a reason why it is said that women of color face a concrete wall in business.
As a Black woman in Big Corporate, like so many others, I’ve experienced many of these obstacles. Yet, as much as they affect many a woman of color at work, they’re not usually widely shared. My girlfriends and I would discuss these, and even laugh about them at times; but we’d never share them outside of our small group. We were too scared of being misunderstood and adding even more grief to the whole situation. Besides, some of these challenges can be so subtle that it makes it hard to even demonstrate their existence.
Here are 7 unique challenges that women of color face at work day in and day out:
Being judged according to false stereotypes
The “angry black woman” stereotype is only one of the damaging images used to portray and unfairly judge many a woman of color. Many are the negative ideas that precede women of color before they even enter the room, speak up, or perform at work. It’s because of these very false stereotypes that many retreat in a professional corner, or get extremely defensive.
Being aware of these stereotypes is a hard realization, yet one that is necessary in order to combat them. Unrelenting dedication, commitment, assertiveness, along with a good dose of patience, are also key.
Playing the advocate to the entire Black race (along with other minorities)
Issa Rae’s hit series Insecure does an amazing job at exposing how women of color, and Black women in particular, are sometimes expected to be representatives of their entire communities. At the non-profit organization she works, Issa is pretty much considered an “urban encyclopedia”. Her best friend, Molly, is the only Black woman associate in her law firm, which prompts one of the senior partners to ask her to speak to one of the new Black interns whose boisterous ways are not aligned with the firm’s culture.
When you’re the only woman of color in your team or department, or one of a only a few, you can quickly become the advocate for the rest of your community. Which means being asked to pass along sensitive messages, like Molly in Insecure, or explain just about anything and everything that has to do with your culture.
Working twice as hard
Poppa Pope said it right in the hit series Scandal: “You have to be twice as good as them”, when referring to what Olivia Pope would have to do to be successful in her career. Sadly, it’s advice most women of color receive from their childhood on, and have to apply through most of their careers.
How many times have we seen women of color over-studying, overdoing, and outperforming everyone else at work; only to be passed over for promotions or asked to trained someone else they would later report to? As sad and infuriating as it may be, it’s very much a reality for many women of color at work.
Being the odd woman out
Have you ever found yourself in the midst of environments where you have no cultural references to contribute? For many, if not most women of color, it’s more the norm than the exception.
When you’re the only woman of color, or one of very few women of color in the room, your experiences, culture, entertainment are seldom discussed or shared. Instead, you may find yourself getting relegated to the silent corner. Or, on the opposite end of the odd spectrum, you may be at the end of interesting observations and compliments about your hair, skin, or even body shape. This is not always intentional on the part of colleagues and managers. However, it’s a hard reality that many, if not most women of color, deal with every single day.
Being at the end of double standards
There are many instances in which women of color are subject to double standards in the workplace. From differences in work expectations and perks to dress codes, these double standards can be as subtle as they can be disheartening.
Having to do the “voice switch” and other ways of watering ourselves down
If you’re a woman of color at work, you may have had to do the “voice switch” at work. You know that time when you water down your natural voice tone to sound more “professional”. Somehow, hitting the proper “business” tone may contribute to giving more credibility to women of color who are routinely considered unprofessional, from their natural hair to their assumed aggressiveness.
Being rejected by other women of color
When there is a belief that there are only so many spots available to women of color, it can create an atmosphere of prejudice between them. The same occurs when it’s also believed that these same women may not be competent.
The fear of associating with other women of color and being misjudged keeps many from mentoring and supporting their counterparts. Instead, they opt to stay away.
All in all, being a woman of color is a very unique experience that is seldom shared and discussed for fear of the lack of understanding or judgment that may result. However, it’s important that we start telling the stories that can change the landscape of work for the better. The more we can talk about the obstacles we face, the more we can share tools and find the appropriate solutions.
What unique challenges have you faced as a woman of color at work?
To Your Success,
The Corporate Sister.