Even though we seem to be seeing more and more images of Black Women appointed in senior leadership positions in the workplace, the default image of a competent business leader is still a White Male. Anyone who does not fit into that description experiences bias, i.e. they might be pre-judged as incompetent for leadership positions because they don’t fit the stereotype. Although many still argue that this is no longer the case due to well publicized appointments of Black Women being appointed for senior leadership roles from Takealot to Fortune 500 companies, the evidence shows a different picture. The Commission for Employment Equity report revealed that Black Women still only represent 5,7% of top leadership positions, even though they represent 36% of the economically active population.
Conventional career advice given to women who aim for leadership positions is to act more like men. Women are told that their natural feminine behaviour does not inspire confidence in their competence to lead. Women are constantly advised that if they want to be taken seriously, they have to let go of some of their natural, or should I say conditioned feminine traits. I say “conditioned” because women and men are raised differently. Women are raised to nurture families, as supporters and caretakers, while men are raised for leadership and agency as future providers and winners in the public arena.
Some of the areas where women experience the most criticizm are:
- Communication: e.g. posing statements as questions, using language that is more accommodating and passive while waiting to be recognized before speaking in a meeting instead of just speaking up as men often do.
- Confidence: not taking risks, that we only apply for a position we 100% qualify for, that we remain invisible by refusing to talk about our accomplishments and hoping that our work would speak for itself and hiding our ambitions hoping someone will notice us.
- Our Appearance: that wearing clothing that accentuates our femininity reduces us to sex objects; to be taken seriously our choice of clothing should be closer to the masculine as possible.
- For Black Women, in particular, this expectation imposes that we not only assimilate to male characteristics but also White/western characteristics. Black women have been advised not to wear their hair naturally, to speak with an accent and behave in a way that is more acceptable or “professional” to (white) society.
Women have indicated that they feel like they have to be someone else as soon as they step into the office and they find this mentally exhausting. They feel they have to prove over and over again that they are worthy of the positions that they aspire to. Even when they have those positions, they still have to fight for their authority to be recognized. Black women have reported been mistaken for a help or an assistant in situations where they would be the most senior in the room.
There have been several articles indicating that some Black women do not want to go back to the office after working remotely during the COVID19 pandemic lockdown. nytimes.com, (June 23, 2021). They have indicated that working remotely is conducive to better mental health as they don’t have to deal with acts of micro-aggression and the need to pretend they are someone they are not . Micro-aggression is defined as a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group. (Merriam-Webster (2021))
Black women are simply exhausted due to the emotional labour that it takes to build a career. Every morning when they step out of their homes, they put on a mask and pretend to be who they are told to be to get ahead or keep their jobs. Black women are longing to be their authentic selves without risking their livelihoods. Some bravely step out as their authentic self, however, there is always a price to pay for authenticity.
For an example:
- Research shows that black women who wear natural hair have fewer chances of being recruited for positions that require visibility compared to women who wear their hair straight. This includes black women who speak with a heavy vernacular accent.
- Likeability Bias: Women pay the price if they are not likeable or warm, but when they are viewed as ‘too’ likeable they are considered too feminine and not coming across as competent enough to lead firmly.
- Whistleblowers and women who report sexual harassment often pay the price with their careers.
- Black women who speak up against microaggression at work that often disguises itself as attempts at friendliness are labelled angry black women who are not team players.
The price of authenticity for black women is often too high to pay. Besides the strain on their mental health which can lead to physical illness and even deaths by suicide or sickness. There is also the strain on their financial resources. Black women are often the poorest of any population. Even those who earn more and have attained professional success, have to deal with high student loans debts, the weight of being first in the family, building from nothing, often being solely responsible for taking care of their family and extended family. This hinders them from building wealth and saving for a rainy day. Living from paycheque to paycheque means losing a job can have dire consequences within a very short period.
Consequently, black women have found that they have to choose between pragmatism and authenticity. Pragmatism is defined as “a way of dealing with problems or situations that focuses on practical approaches and solutions—ones that will work in practice, as opposed to being ideal in theory. The word pragmatism is contrasted with the word idealism, which means based on or having high principles or ideals.” Dictionary.com (2021). Meaning that they either choose to assimilate at the risk of their mental health and at times their sense of self-respect, and behaving from an authentic self and paying the price with their careers. However, this does not have to be an all or nothing scenario. Change is slow but it is happening, while we are not where we want to be, we are not where we used to be. For an example, Hair discrimination policies have recently been banned in many workplaces in the US (cbsnews.com, November 30 2020) I know it may be appalling that we celebrate news like that in 2021, but that is the reality of things.
While continuing to advocate for things to change, here are some strategies that one can employ to balance the need to be authentic and also pragmatic.
- Define what you are willing and unwilling to change
This relies on knowing yourself and what behaviours from others you can stomach on a sustainable basis. If your office is the kind of environment that’s all about suits and heels and you are a free spirit who can’t think in a suit, maybe avoid workplaces like those. If you are already in such a workplace, you might have to bear it while looking for a position in a place that is more receptive to the kind of person you are.
2. Pace yourself – allow them to get to know you first
Rome was not built in a day. You might need to allow your colleagues to get to know you as a person before setting your Afro free or wearing that flat shoe, bringing that bit of colour to the boring black, brown and grey suit that is the culture in your company. I am using clothes here but this can apply to the other factors as well.
3. Pay your dues and make your mark.
Have you noticed that women appear more authentic when they are older and in senior positions of leadership? Sometimes you may have to pay your dues first before you can earn the right to not give a hoot what people think of you.
4. Be stronger in an area that is key, to compensate for the areas that you are not willing to compromise on.
Sometimes the best impediment against bias is effectiveness in areas that are considered key in that workplace. I am sure you’ve heard expressions like, so and so is maverick but he gets the job done or so and so might be rough around the edges but there is no one better at this and that than she is in this area. At times being effective in an area may cause ways that you don’t ‘fit in’ to get overlooked.
5. Keep strategically questioning the status quo in a way that does not alienate.
Often people who are in power do not like to be challenged. They may overlook your raising of issues that make them uncomfortable once or twice, however, once you get the label of the angry black woman or the militant activist in the workplace, you might get shut down in a way that keeps you from a seat at a table where you can influence change more effectively. We have to question the status quo to effect change, however how you do that is important as the saying goes ‘you can catch more bees using honey than vinegar’.
Bonus Tip: find a community where you can be your best self and have your cup filled.
The workplace has become a place where we look for fulfilment, purpose and recognition. While there is nothing wrong with that, it may be detrimental to your mental health to give one aspect of your life so much power. Find other ways to fulfil your needs. Find a community of like-minded professionals where you can vent and share tips and strategies, start a side hustle or a community project that fulfils you, practice self-care, invest in your professional development. All these will help give you the mental balance that you need to navigate the corporate world.
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