Nothing stings at your confidence quite like being underestimated, underserved and cast out in work spaces you thought you'd grow in and acknowledged your worth. And there's no formal education or amount of money that makes this hard truth any less real for black women.
I remember the moment I first experienced this during my last year of college at my internship in features news writing with a notable media company. I was elated for the position and worked 9 AM-4 PM without a lunch break and after hours as needed. Despite my excitement on the inside, I quickly learned to contain it on the outside. No one talked to each other – or at least to me.
I said "good morning" to my supervisor and cube neighbor, but no one else even made eye contact with me unless it was necessary.
A month into my internship, an editor finally acknowledged me to write an article. She introduced herself but stared at me, confused by my presence as the only black woman on the floor. She immediately asked if I had any writing experience (duh, that's how I landed this internship), where I was originally from and what school I went to. When I proudly said my HBCU of Morgan State University, she curled her lips as a sign of the official "aha, there's the deficit I was looking for" and said, "Yeah, I was there the other day to talk to a few students, it seems like no one really knows how to read or write, like there's not a lot of education on communications there."
I let her comment roll off my shoulder and went to WORK on my writing assignment to show my value.
And it worked – I landed on the web cover page and received compliments throughout the department. But this didn't last long. One of the interviewees called and complained that I mixed up a location venue she was at. I had the actual interview recording to prove that the location was correct, however the editor said to not worry about it and she'd "clean up" the situation.
I went on to write other stories, but on my last week at the internship, I overheard the editor talking to another staff writer that she couldn't see me working long-term with the company if I was already having issues fact-checking. And just like that, any chance I had of staying in the department was tarnished. I never returned, but the effects this experience had on my self-esteem were lasting. I wondered why I was being punished so harshly for a misunderstanding, and why one single incident trumped all the other work I'd done.
Unfortunately, this was not my last encounter of implicit bias. I continued to have work projects overlooked or called out on for their errors, was left out of social conversations and viewed as "not enough," and I soon learned of its commonality. A 2018 Women in The Workplace report from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. found that 40% of black women stated that they've had their judgement questioned in their area of expertise. Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect an individual's understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious matter.
We know we're the office outliers, but despite this, a 2019 Catalyst report found that 88% of black women wanted to remain in the same organization, 87% wanted to be an influential leader and 81% were working towards a high ranking position.
So, what do we do when we still want a piece of the pie?
Know That Nothing Is Wrong With You
Someone else's misperception of you does not define who you are and the value you add. Do not doubt your work and your capabilities.
It can be difficult to believe in yourself when no one else does, but it's at this time you need to douse yourself in love from within. Start your morning with daily affirmations that speak to your soul. Set daily reminders on your phone with uplifting quotes to remind yourself of all that you are.
Still Use Your Voice – With A Nice Nasty!
Reports show that 35% black women feel like their managers create opportunities to showcase their work compared to 43% of white women. Furthermore, 22% of black women reported they often had their work contributions ignored.
Your voice and thoughts are still powerful, so continue to empower yourself to address issues in your office.
And, don't be too humble to be what I call the "nice nasty". Trust, when you "unconsciously" do to people what they're "unconsciously" doing to you, they get the picture. If someone asks if you need help on an assignment that is clearly in your expertise already, ask them if they need help with something they're doing. You'll both be surprised by their reaction.
Get Involved In Employee Resource Groups Or Create One
Diversity isn't just about checking the box, but providing tools and opportunities for inclusion to really include everyone. Employee resource groups (ERG's) are employer-recognized groups of employees who share the concerns of common race, gender, national origin or sexual orientation. These groups are intended to enhance the employee experience and when done right, should lead to developmental opportunities for your group.
If diversity and inclusion and ERG's are not being properly recognized at your job, there's bound to be someone you can connect with for social support.
Plan Your Next Move
The realism is your work culture of implicit bias may not change. If you recognize this and find yourself unhappy, unsatisfied and underserved, then it's time to move on. While it may be frustrating to get back up in the saddle, you deserve to be in a space that uplifts, encourages and values what you bring to the table. Your voice matters!
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