It’s no secret that as women we just don’t get a fair shake when it comes to the corporate world. The inequalities we face stem from salaries all the way down to titles. But gender inequality is just the tip of the iceberg.
If you’re a woman and black then I’m sure you know exactly what I mean. As women of African-American descent, there are very specific challenges that only we face in the workplace.
Like so many other obstacles that life throws our way, we’ve learned to turn lemons into lemonade and just “deal with it”.
However, it’s important to note and check the issues when necessary. Here are just 6 of the experiences that I know are unique not only to my gender, but to my race as well.
6 Unique Challenges Black Women Face in the Workplace
Watering Yourself Down
Many women of color are made to feel that our very existence in the workplace is unacceptable.
Unprofessionalism is routinely defined as parts of who we are as a people. Even the hair that grows from our heads is in some cases viewed as defiance. Just recently, a U.S court ruled a ban against dreadlocks legal within the hiring process.
The other day, one of my Facebook friends wrote a status stating that she was no longer going to use her “white voice” at work. Amidst the onslaught of hearts and laughter, no one once questioned what it was that she meant. We all knew.
I imagine that many of us possess an alternate voice exclusively for “business”. This notion originates from the thinking that even when using proper English, if the octave of our voice isn’t just right we somehow jeopardize our credibility.
Literally Doing the Most
Even as little girl, my mother made me overly aware that in Corporate America I had to be twice as good to receive half the opportunity.
Sadly, that’s the way of the world.
In today’s society, you must over study, overdo, and outperform in order to maybe be given the recognition you rightfully deserve. I’ve seen it a thousand times; one could excel in everything that comes their way and yet the company will still bring in someone for that individual to train should a higher position become available.
Talk about mentally and emotionally draining!
Not only that, studies show that unemployment is higher among college educated blacks as compared to their non-black counterparts. Don’t be fooled, the problem isn’t with black achievement. But don’t dare voice your concerns or opinions. You’ll quickly find yourself corralled into the box of the “angry black woman” or the alternate insult, the “sensitive sistah.”
Being Culturally Displaced
A large part of what connects people is culture – our experiences, our neighborhoods, our art and entertainment -it all contributes to who we are.
At work, I often find myself the odd man out as it relates to jokes in the boardroom.
More often than not, when cultural references are made, I have absolutely no point of reference. Instead, my polite smile and I are shuffled aside as people colorfully engage within the confines of their own world.
Being in an environment where you are persistently the lone solider can quickly become tiring. I am in no way suggesting that this form of exclusion is intentional or mean spirited, but it happens nonetheless.
Even things that are meant to be compliments can sometimes feel like a slap in the face. You guys have the best skin and Oh my God, your hair is so pretty, is it soft? will never be as flattering as a simple You look nice today. I like your hair.
Being Regarded as a Black Encyclopedia
Just because I’m black doesn’t mean that I hold the keys to blackness.
If one more person asks me another question concerning a particular neighborhood, song lyrics, my hair care routine, or thinks I’m just supposed to know “what’s the one movie when Ricky gets shot?” I am going to freaking lose my mind.
I am not a living, breathing Siri.
Believe it or not, there are some black history facts that I just don’t know, and I’m okay with that. And newsflash, not all black people are from the hood (I am though, Eastside of Pontiac, but I digress). Again, whether purposeful or not there are some things that are just plain inappropriate.
Dress Code Double Standards
There has long been a double standard when it comes to dress codes and black women in the workplace.
I was recently called into the office because of what I was wearing; a full-length dress with leggings (I hate the feel of tights). Even after witnessing multiple women parade around in their leggings, I still sought the okay from my supervisor as to not encounter any problems.
Imagine my surprise when I was promptly called into the office and informed that HR asked my supervisor to review the the dress code with me. I was then given the printed copy. I was livid.
Not only was I embarrassed, but I’d been granted permission. And while I know leggings can be extremely questionable, they weren’t for this environment.
I know the difference between professional and unprofessional dress. My husband is a Career Coach for crying out loud! Meanwhile, on that same day, another woman pranced around the office in a dress that would have shown her butt cheeks if she bent over.
And I wasn’t the only one outfitted in leggings. But somehow I needed to be informed of proper dress. Alrighty.
Last but not least, we sometimes experience prejudice even from those that look just like us.
There are women that hell will have to freeze over before they are caught associating with another woman of color. There are also those who (without cause) question whether or not you know your job… and of course, the one-uppers who believe there is only room for one brilliant black chick on the current turf.
Instead of forging together to create a nurturing environment, they draw lines in the sand, afraid that your similarities will cause the ones signing the paychecks to believe that you’re too buddy-buddy. For these women, I’m not sure that there’s any hope.
If their Black Girl Magic is that fragile, I say let them be.
Whether you have experienced one, none, or all of these situations, the fact remains that being a black woman in the workplace is truly a unique and sometimes lonely experience.
So now that we’ve pinpointed a few of the issues, what can we do about them? I honestly don’t believe there’s just one answer to the question. The issues we face are complex, deeply rooted, highly sensitive, and most times, uncomfortable for all parties involved.
What we can do though is show up.
Come to the table with those who are genuine about supporting us and understanding our culture.
Create and nurture black business so that we can thrive in places of employment that feel more like “home”.
Put ourselves in other’s shoes and realize that our unique beauty truly is mesmerizing, so perhaps a question or two every now and then is warranted.
Whatever route we choose to take, it’s up to us to challenge the status quo and misconceptions and make sure that our voices are heard. I encourage each of you to hold your heads up high and twirl on them like only you can.
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