Black women do not fit the stereotype of how a competent senior leader looks like, so what?

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on

Bias is part of our everyday life. We think in pictures. We have a picture of how a post ’man’ looks like, a picture of how a mother looks like and behaves, a father, a typical teenager, etc. We do this so we can be efficient. When someone mentions the word grandmother, you don’t have to remember all the different grandmothers that you have seen, heard, read about. You have one picture of a grandmother with certain characteristics that describes a typical grandmother. You usually assume that that person’s grandmother fits the grandmother stereotype unless evidence says otherwise.  

The same applies in the workplace, when someone mentions senior manager, executive, board member, I bet you that the picture that comes into your mind is not that of a black woman. You don’t have to be racist or sexist, or even male to have that picture, it is just what you are used to seeing.

One of the consequence of black women not fitting this stereotype is that they have to prove over and over again that they are competent enough to hold these positions. It doesn’t help matters when they themselves hold internalized beliefs of not being good enough. Which then gets triggered when they are overlooked for positions that they are fully qualified for. Positions that are sometimes given to men who are not as qualified or have the same qualifications, because as men they fit the stereotype of a person who is competent. Decision makers don’t feel like they are taking as much a risk with men as with women because of this unconscious bias.

The problem is that some women are not aware of this bias and are caught surprised when this happens. All their lives they have been told that hard works pays. This was confirmed at school when their hard work would result in better grades, meaning there was a direct correlation between hard work and results. Because they see black women in positions of power in the media, they assume that gender bias and discrimination is a thing of the past. When this happens to them it hits them hard because they are not expecting it. They either internalize the unworthiness, protest it or resign themselves to an unhappy work environment where they feel unacknowledged and unrewarded.

Companies have a responsibility to create cultures and values that understand and support diversity. Leaders have to create a ‘tone at the top’ that demonstrate that discrimination in all its forms will not be tolerated in the organisations they lead. Policies and procedures have to be put in place to prevent and monitor acts of bias and discrimination. Training on diversity and bias have to be implemented to bring awareness to unconscious bias and how it manifest itself. We wish all organisations can do this, not all of them will. As a result, black women have to have strategies in place to manage navigate bias in the workplace.

Collins and Dempsey (2013) in their book: What works for women at work suggest the following 5 Strategies that women can implement to navigate ‘competency’ bias.

Strategy 1: Trump the Stereotype

This strategy is about not allowing yourself to be stereotyped by deliberately creating your brand. One of the strategies is to document all your accomplishment and all the projects that you have done and the results you have achieved. Actually keeping a file of your achievements so you can be specific about why you think you can do a certain job. This looks like acquiescing to the status quo but then again we have to navigate what we are unable to change. They advise that if someone gives you a compliment about the work that you have done, that you ask them to do it in writing. I used to ask anyone who complements my work to email my boss. This may come in handy as well when you have to challenge discrimination in performance evaluations, assignments, negotiating for a raise and promotions.

Strategy 2: Get Over Yourself

‘“Get over yourself” theory, which holds that women themselves are the largest obstacle they face in the workplace.’ This refers to stereotypical female behaviour. Like the tendency to be self-effacing, being a perfectionist and never talk themselves up. This is as a result of how women are conditioned because they were traditionally raised to be wives and mothers. To be ‘good girls, that is be nice, to please and over extend themselves for external approval and comfort. Women can also hold the bias that they are not competent enough because they are not male. This often leads to feelings of not being good enough, an impostor syndrome that is demonstrated in their behaviour. This is a problem that Black women in the workplace is aiming to solve through coaching and bringing  awareness to black women on ways they sabotage themselves and how to overcome those.

Strategy 3: Know Your Limits

Be careful of burnout. This sounds counterintuitive to the advice that is given to women. That because women are often assumed to not be competent; they have to demonstrate a higher level of competency than their male colleagues to get ahead. This requires time and effort and may lead to burnout. Especially when we consider the fact that women are still mainly responsible for most of the house work, parenting and taking care of elderly parents at home. This is often referred to as the ‘second shift’.

Women are advised to put strategies in place to self-care and avoid burnout. Some of the strategies are to have a day a week where you don’t work, set a time a cut-off time each day where you stop working, and if you can afford it, get paid help at home to minimise the ‘second shift’.

Strategy 4: Address the Bias — With Kid Gloves?

‘If you feel you are dealing with a person of good faith who is capable of non-defensive self-reflection, sometimes the best thing to do is to try and confront it directly. We’re not suggesting that you, say, accuse the most senior man at your company of sexism. But defending yourself against bias calmly and competently can be extremely effective. Unconscious biases are unconscious, so sometimes simply bringing attention to them is enough to counter their effects. Once you’ve put together evidence of your accomplishments, you can go to a superior and make your case.’ 

Nolitha Fakude in her book Boardroom dancing is supportive of the strategy of calmly speaking out, without fighting. She relates a number of incidences that this method bode well for her. One of these was an incidence where she had just been appointed as an executive and this one guy didn’t print a copy for her and she had to share with a colleague. She noticed this and gave him the benefit of the doubt. It happened again and she was fuming but didn’t speak out. Before the third meeting she was ready to speak out if it were to happen again and it did. She calmly indicated that she does not wish to share a copy and that, it is either this guy is bad at counting or this is deliberate. What happened next was a demonstration of the importance of a company leader’s responsibility to demonstrate acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. He asked that they move to the next topic while this gentleman goes and prints a copy for her. Although this could have gone south if the culture of the company and the leader was supportive of this behaviour.

However the authors caution against using kids gloves when dealing with a bully and that a direct approach is more advisable. I think that confronting is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Sihle Bolani in her book: We are the ones we need, demonstrates what can happen when one speaks out. She talks of her long battle to find justice and an acknowledgment that she was being discriminated against. Her book demonstrates how this can look like at its ugliest. An assessment of the environment, being mindful that it might not go as expected, and working through one’s own feelings beforehand; to ensure that you can calmly articulate the issue clearly when doing the confrontation is very important. It is also okay to leave an environment that is toxic and does not have the awareness or the commitment to self-correct.

Strategy 5: Play a Specialized or Technical Role

“Very few of the women we spoke with said they had experienced little or no gender discrimination in the course of their careers. Of those who did, most either founded their own companies or developed a very narrow specialty, whether they worked primarily overseas, as an outside consultant in their respective industry, or in a very specialized role within their firms.”

This is what I also advocate in the Re-imagined the next stage of your career online program that helps black women position themselves for promotions. That women should find a Speciality or a project and excel at it, so as to set themselves apart and demonstrate what they are competency and capability.

The important thing is not to tell women what to do. It is to make them aware and allow them to exercise their agency in deciding how they deal with biases against them in their organisations.

Published by Hlatswayobusisiwe

MBA (Henley), Career Coach and Founder Black Women in the workplace

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