Black Women and the Workplace

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Ayanna Castro shares her experiences, and those of other Black women, and the workplace

I am Black and I am a woman

My mother often reminded me of this because there would be times when I would have to be twice as good to receive half the credit. Degrees, certifications, experience and accomplishments might go unnoticed, dismissed and scrutinized simply because of the color of my skin. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized my mother wasn’t being pessimistic; she was preparing me for the possible unavoidable statements I might encounter in the world and the workplace.

You’re so articulate.

You write really well.

You need to be more mindful of your tone.

I could promote you, but I won’t.

You should smile more.

You’re overreacting.

You need to be more of a team player.

Stop taking things so personally.

Is that your real hair?

Are you sure? I need to verify that information.

See my tan? I’m almost as dark as you!

Your name is so hard to pronounce. Do you have a nickname?

These are real comments and questions stated and asked in professional workplaces to Black women around the world.

Microaggressions

Microaggressions are forms of everyday discrimination that are often rooted in bias. Whether intentional or unintentional, they signal disrespect and are more often directed at those with less power. These statements reveal the often-systematic racism and inflict a thousand little cuts that Black women feel in the workplace on a daily basis. Based on the 2018 Women in the Workplace Report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, 64% of women experience microaggressions. However, Black women in particular deal with a greater variety of microaggressions. They are more likely to have others take credit for their ideas as well as be mistaken for someone at a much lower level. It is not just the microaggressions; it is also the disparities in manager support and sponsorship, such as navigating organizational politics and receiving opportunities to showcase their work.

Black women endure having their competence and integrity questioned when asked to provide more evidence for their actions or contributions

“HR was called by an underperforming White employee who said I “always wrote him up” and that he was being discriminated against. Of course, I had reports and SOPs that showed why he was written up and ultimately fired due to performance.”

“I have two master’s degrees and two professional credentials, and I am still looked upon as stupid or unknowing. No matter what I say, I can have the signed confession, the surveillance video, witness statements, etc., it is still questioned. Especially from men. White women are even worse.”

“One day I am in the office in between conducting interviews and a guy from another team makes a comment insinuating that I only wanted minority employees on my team. At that time, I had 4 resources: 1 White female, 1 Latino female, 1 Black female and 1 Black male. I inherited my entire team except one person, as they were all there before me.”

“I’m led by the only Black director and some upset employees within the agency requested for HR to check interviews as many new faces in leadership started to look like that of my director’s and mine.”

“Department manager walked by my group as we were working. My co-workers were all non-whites with two men in the group. He stopped and said, ‘You should all be lynched for talking and working so slow.’ Then he walked away to his office. I was the only person to file a complaint. I was told that nothing could be done and that I did not have a case of discrimination. About a year later, a White woman was hired. After he treated her differently based on her friendship with Black co-workers, it was ruled she had been discriminated against by the same manager. She received an award/settlement.”

Their judgment is questioned in their areas of expertise

“In a meeting with the White female CEO, I was presenting our project structure, capabilities and client relationship to senior leadership and development consultants. CEO says ‘Wow. You sound smart. Where are you from?’ In the same meeting, I was asked which minority populations were targeted by the project. The CEO interrupts my response to Whitesplain ‘You know? Like there are different species … horses, dogs, etc.’ In an interview, a white Senior VP asked a Latina candidate if she has her ‘papers.’”

“I managed a multi-million-dollar departmental budget for several years until a newly hired White female manager insisted she should be managing it because it was too complicated for an administrative assistant. One year later, the new administrative assistant, a White woman, was given the responsibility of overseeing the budget.”

“I either have to deal with excessive micromanaging or I have to send several follow-up emails requesting feedback to move forward on critical projects.”

We are ignored and overlooked, often interrupted and spoken over

“Being ignored in meetings with mostly White men, being ignored by leadership when just sitting in the same space, people (usually women) not making room in the hallway. Mansplaining/White womansplaining the thing I JUST said during a training or meeting, interrupting me as I train folks (This was even noted on a training evaluation. The attendee said, it was good, but that one man kept interrupting me).”

“Not saying my name or contributions on conference calls. Like I don’t even exist…. I am the only Black woman on a team of 5 directors.  The rest are White males.”

“I’ve been purposely left off of group emails. Work relative to my job function has been assigned to my White counterpart who has less practical experience and even less desire to complete the task simply because she doesn’t challenge the manager.”

Impacts of Microaggressions

Although they can seem small in the moment, these negative experiences add up. Over time, microaggressions can have a major impact; it is important to challenge them when you see them. According to the 2019 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, women who experience microaggressions are three times more likely to regularly think about leaving their job than women who have not experienced this form of discrimination.

Black women are often overlooked for promotions and their achievements are dismissed as luck. Black women often remain silent to avoid being viewed as difficult or, even worse, angry. However, we have plenty of reasons to be angry. Between off-handed comments about our physical appearance to outward skepticism about our well-earned education and credentials, we struggle to balance being ourselves and assimilating to keep others comfortable. If we raise our voices or express displeasure, we are often told we are taking things out of context.

According to Forbes, Black women are not seen as being communal in the workplace (pleasant, caring, deferential and concerned about others), but as stereotypically assertive, angry and “having an attitude.” We regularly face the challenge of avoiding being seen as angry or assertive in order to be likeable, without appearing to lack the strength and independence needed to lead and be promoted. The general expectation is everyone should conform to the norms of the workplace. However, for Black women there is an additional racial bias. As a result, Black women are more likely to be treated unfairly in promotions and training, suffer discrimination in advancement opportunities; and therefore, experience more workplace frustration and disengagement.

There is no one story of women in the workplace. By and large, women of color have worse experiences than women overall. Black women are far less likely to feel they have an equal opportunity to grow and advance and are far less likely to think the best opportunities go to the most deserving employees. We are also less happy at work and more likely to leave a company than other women. Black women often endure having their competence questioned and are asked to provide more evidence for their contributions or decisions.

Code-Switching

Code-switching is commonly defined as the process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting. If you ask most people of color, code-switching is the language, mannerisms, and body language used when in the company of peers from a different class and/or race. Black people usually code-switch between a more Standard English (usually associated with White people or societal elite) and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Black Vernacular English (BVE). However, even the ability to code-switch can also be immersed in classism, educational bias and colorism.

Nothing about code-switching is easy. It requires constant awareness of the environment and involved parties, and it is learned out of necessity, not choice. Many Black people were taught at an early age and see code-switching as an essential skill needed to successfully navigate life. Standard English is often associated with education and prestige, demanding more social respectability. Black women are instinctively aware that speaking AAVE/BVE in corporate spaces can cause a loss of respect and, in turn, access to professional opportunities. We code-switch for a variety of reasons, including fear of miscommunication and prejudice. Black women feel pressure in a work environment to show we are educated and not the typical stereotype seen too-often on television or on social media.

What Can Organizations Do? 

Acknowledge that racism and bias exist. “[It’s] not just ‘out there,'” wrote Erin Thomas, the head of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Upwork, in a Twitter thread titled “Dear Company Leaders.” “It’s hardwired into your organizational structures, team dynamics and individual employee experiences.”

1. Don’t Ask to Be Educated

It is not the job or responsibility of Black employees to teach management and colleagues about racism. Plenty of information is available to conduct your own homework and research. Your Black coworkers can’t be responsible for teaching you all about African American history and culture.

2. Adopt a Culture of Diversity and Inclusion

It is no secret that diverse teams make better business decisions. Black employees want to see action toward eliminating barriers and prejudiced assumptions about them.

3. Build Managers’ Skills

Create a diversity and inclusion toolkit for managers that includes training on reducing bias in hiring, promotions and forming inclusive teams.

4. Empower Employees to Speak Up

Many employees do not recognize biased behavior and when they do, they do not speak up. Providing unconscious bias training helps build a culture that promotes respect and engages employees to be a part of the solution. In addition, organizations must cultivate a culture that encourages people to speak up and engage in difficult conversations without fear of retribution.

5. Managers Need to Challenge Bias

Challenging bias language and behavior allows employees to value each other’s differences and sets the standard of intolerance and inclusion from leadership to direct reports.

6. Senior Leaders Must Lead the Way

Based on the 2019 Women in the Workplace Report, only 12 percent of senior-level men say they have seen biased behavior opposed to 43% of senior-level women. The challenge is educating all senior leaders to speak up more often, which will empower employees to speak up, too.

Best practices to address microaggressions

1. If you are caught off guard, circle back

If you are taken aback by an act of microaggression and don’t know how to respond in the moment, always circle back. Make the time to speak to the person later in a one-on-one conversation. It takes courage to have the conversation and express how it made you feel. If you think that your emotions might detract from the message, write it down and practice what you are going to say.

2. Seek help from your network

When microaggression and bias happen, our relationships become sources of help. You need a diverse personal board of directors. Not every White person is trying to undermine you and not every Black woman wants you to succeed. Build relationships by asking for mentoring and input, not just from those within your department or division, but throughout the organization.

3. Know your worth, know your options and never stop exploring them

“Too often, Black women stay in unhealthy workplace environments and endure microaggression for longer than necessary, because they are unsure of their ability to do better elsewhere, and making changes often entails more risk for Black women than for others. There are other jobs out there,” asserts Nielsen Senior Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, Sandra Sims-Williams.  “Know your worth and don’t be afraid to exercise your options.”

Hope for the Future

I am the mother of two daughters. One is artistic and a quiet genius. One lives her life in full high-definition color. At their young ages, they’ve already experienced microaggressions at the hands of educators, camp counselors, dance instructors and troop leaders. My girls didn’t recognize them and couldn’t verbalize the feeling of disrespect they were feeling. But I knew exactly what they were feeling.  Whether intentional or accidental, I’ve had to request meetings and have private conversations to defend them and bring attention to the inappropriate words and behavior that would not be tolerated.

My hope is as they get older, my daughters will recognize microaggressions for what they are and be confident to speak against them. But the greater hope is that there won’t be a need for intolerance because microaggressions will cease to exist and my daughters will be seen for their integrity, brilliance and creativity and not the color of their skin.

Sources: 2018, 2019 Women in the Workplace Report (McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org); CNN Business; The Financial Diet; Everyday Feminism; Black Enterprise.

Click here to view the panel discussion from ExecSecLIVE Global on Racism in the Workplace with John Shaw, Lucy Brazier, Ayanna Castro, Lizebeth Koloko-Green, Barbara Oliver and Lafayette Wilder.

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About Author

Ayanna Castro

Ayanna Castro, PMP, CGMP, CAP, OM is the Founder and Chief Maven of Work Your Package™ and the author of Work Your Package™ – A Guide to Being the Total Package. Ayanna has over 25 years of professional experience in various industries such city government, law, public relations, private equity, utilities and media. She holds both AA and BA degrees in Business Administration and Sociology. If you are interested in Ayanna training your assistants or speaking at your event, either virtually or in person, please email [email protected]

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