Navigating As A Woman In A Man’s (Working) World

Workin' Girl

So many of us know the struggle of being a woman of color in a male-dominated workplace. We must be soft as to not be attitudinal, but not too soft as to still be a boss. We must be kind, as to not be a "b*tch", but not too kind as to not be a pushover. We're constantly faced with having to tone down our strength and assertiveness, but not too much because we still need to be effective leaders. For some, there's a constant battle of diminishing who you are to fit a standard of 'professionalism' the workplace demands — a standard that was not created for us or by us. This is a challenging reality to face and even more challenging to manage.

But all is not lost. Though we might have to play the game a little, we deserve to be here and that's become increasingly evident. Women are rising to the occasion and creating organizational shifts that only we can. But getting here was not easy, and staying here won't be either.

The following gems are provided by #GirlBosses who own their womanhood and femininity and still thrive in their respective industries. These tips come from women in medicine, finance, higher education, law enforcement, and politics. Though this list is not all-inclusive, it will certainly help you cement your footing toward promotion and tackle the day-to-day struggles of being a woman in a man's working world.

Trust Your Instincts & Skill-set.

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When operating in a male-dominated space one of the most important things is confidence. Understand that you were hired for a reason. Your specific skill-set and knowledge base is an asset to the company, and you must trust that. So often, we question our decisions based on the opposition of a co-worker. Instead, stand tall in what you know, and trust that what you feel is right is actually right. Recognize the value you bring to the company, and honor it by speaking up and sharing your expertise. You know more than you think you do.

"The confidence that you have in your work ethic and knowledge should never waiver. Sometimes in this environment silence is interpreted as a deficiency in knowledge or lack of conviction. Speak up and be confident in yourself." — Huiam Mubarak, MD, Neurology

"Trusting my instincts meant doing what felt right in the moment. Whether it be inquiring about an oddity in existing processes or simply relying on my intuition, I learned to trust my gut feeling as I navigate through my career. It's not enough just to listen to your gut feeling... you have to actually trust it." — Daena A. Barnes, Programming Supervisor/Build Engineer, Financial Technology

Stop Trying to be Nice.

Business woman showing she means business

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Playing nice — which is often considered as timid in the workplace — will not guarantee you professional growth. By the time the Chief of Police taught me this lesson, I'd been working in the office for about a year. The lesson came after a very steamy meeting with him and a few lieutenants — some of them women. He left the meeting feeling accomplished and stopped at my desk to exclaim how being nice doesn't get you far in a man's world. I held onto that as I began navigating various male-dominant workspaces.

Being nice alone doesn't get you many places. I've watched women and men alike, get chewed up and spit out because they thought their niceness would open doors. Alternatively, I've watched the biggest jerks get the best promotions, not because they were jerks, but because at the end of their poor behavior was a mind (and results) that couldn't be ignored.

The truth is, business is business, and that's what people are most concerned about. So yes, be kind, but at the forefront of that kindness should be business. Nice does not win you likes if your work is lacking — especially not if it's lacking because you were too busy being nice. Stop apologizing for being assertive because you'd rather be 'nice' instead. Stop saying sorry for "bothering" a colleague when you want a question answered, or being okay with unmet deadlines and excessive excuses.

Be business-minded and firm — and don't apologize for it.

Play the “Boy’s Game.”

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Though it may suck, some industries require us to play the game. The easiest, most authentic way to do this is by simply making the decision-makers feel comfortable. Making them feel comfortable opens a door of closeness that may be required for being invited to the table. Don't compromise your morals to do so, but when possible, show them that you can hang too. Make witty jokes, participate in the conversation, partner with them on projects, and allow them to let their guard down around you. Show them that you can participate in the game, and promotion will surely follow.

"As I progress in my career, there are less women around at management and senior management meetings. Sure, there are women doing the every day work, but it's majority of men calling the hard shots. There are 7 levels above me to get to the CEO and only 1 level is occupied by a woman. This means, I have to play the 'boys game' and ensure I make the men feel comfortable around me. They are the ones that make the decisions regarding who gets the new clients and the big high profile opportunities. If they are not comfortable with you on a personal level, it is harder for them to want to give you the opportunity when it is their neck on the line." — C. Felicita Castro, Vice President, Finance Industry

Honor Your Lived Experiences.

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As women — particularly women of color — we have specific lived experiences that set us apart from many of our counterparts. Dr. Huiam Mubarak believes in the importance of utilizing these experiences in the work we do, no matter what that work is. Being able to connect our own experiences to our work allows us to fulfill our roles more passionately — a trait that inspires us to thrive even when no one else is looking. It also helps us form deeper connections to the work and the people we serve, create a larger impact, and provide a diverse lens for which things should be considered. All of which makes our output unique to the company.

"You should always remember that your life experiences are invaluable in the care that you provide to your patients. Don't ever forget where you came from and who you are. Be proud of the things that others may consider a weakness and use it to your advantage." — Huiam Mubarak, MD, Neurology

Utilize Your Compassion.

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Though compassion is innate and doesn't necessarily differ between men and women, the ways in which compassion is expressed does. Women, in general, experience more compassion in their lives than men. Officer Jill Knox, Victim Support Specialist, encourages women to use this to their advantage:

"The key for me has been the gift of talking and being familiar with so many people in my community. Sympathizing and being aware of what's going on with people helps me conquer as a Black woman."

Jill suggests that her ability to connect with the community where she works, positions her to accomplish more than her male counterparts. "People trust me," she says. And this trust helps Jill better serve her community. By utilizing her natural compassion, Jill has been able to successfully serve and form connections that keep her in the very position she worked hard to obtain. This is particularly useful for those working in fields that encourage community and client input for hiring and promotion decisions.

Establish a Firm Sister Circle.

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Finding women in the workplace — and in your industry — is critical for ensuring you survive all that comes with being in a man's working world. Just like having sister-friends for your personal life, establishing a professional sister circle can serve as a support base, as mentorship, and as a means to remain level-headed when things get real. Contrary to your normal group of friends, your professional sister circle understands what it's like to do your work and be in the field. Because of this, they're able to offer specific insight to help you conquer within your respective industry and/or workplace. A professional sister circle will push you to greater heights professionally and will serve as a shoulder to cry on during your hardest days.

"From being the only woman of color in my classes to teaching students emboldened to call me out my name, the journey to becoming Dr. Yancy has taken more than given. To counter these feelings and experiences, some key people like my mom, my sister-circle, Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, and Dr. Shayla Nunnally, provided me with tools for radical self-care. From daily affirmations to creating space for myself and other sisters to speak truth to power and celebrate the complexity of being our full selves [in and out of this work] I now have the tools to use my voice, promote Black women's intellectualism, and ensure Black women are seated at the table."

— Brittney Yancy, Assistant Professor at Goodwin College, Doctoral Candidate at the University of Connecticut, and Ambassador to the United States of Women.

Are there any other tips that you learned that has helped you navigate yourself in a man's working world? Share them below!

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

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