My journey with The Imposter Syndrome

I suffer from the Imposter syndrome

There I said it! Some call it ‘not good enough, unworthy or inadequacy. It is the feeling that you are a fraudster and someone is going to find out, that the life you are living is not yours. I used to believe that if I worked hard enough on myself. If I did enough inner work, I would get to a place where I am fully confident and feel deserving of all of my achievements. I am slowly realizing that, that may never happen.

Every attempt at achieving every level of success requires a higher level of confidence than one needed before . Every next level of accomplishment requires one to dig deeper than they did before. It is never cute, nor easy, many tears are shed. Often one has to push through feeling uncomfortable and unequal to the task.

When I first landed in that Accounting class at university, the imposter syndrome got so bad that I lost all confidence in my abilities as a student and failed for the first time. As an A student all my life, it was both humbling and confusing to have lost the one thing I knew I was good at. I spent the rest of my university days working to rebuild my confidence in my abilities as a student. I struggled through undergrad. Growing up I dreamed of becoming a Chartered Accountant (CA). I did not even know what CA’s did, I just read that they made a lot of money and wanted to become one. However, the impostor syndrome won and I gave up.

I got my drivers license after 6 failed attempts at 31 years old. I wrestled with the imposter syndrome and only won when one of my many driving school instructor called out my imposter syndrome by it’s name. I realized then that I was battling to see myself as someone who could own and drive her own vehicle . No one in my immediate family had, let alone a woman as young as I was at the time. As a result I would sabotage myself and fail so I can have an excuse for delaying getting a car. I will forever be grateful to that guy for the realization.

When I was studying for my Advanced Diploma in Risk Management at UNISA. I passed all my modules except, Market Risk because it was investment finance and I’d always wanted to be an investment banker. Because I believed it was impossible to have the career that I wanted, I I made everything investment banking related, too difficult for me. I only passed it on my second attempt, when the imposter syndrome let off and I was finally calm enough to understand all those weird numbers in my textbook.

Studying for my MBA was one of the most challenging period of my life. The one trait that I’m grateful for having is that I’m not afraid of starting things. I get so excited about starting that I don’t think things through and only realize the enormity of the challenge when I’m in the middle and already committed. I had the same experience with the MBA, I enjoyed it until I got towards the end. When it dawned on me that I could actually posses a Masters Degree, the imposter syndrome reared its ugly head and pinned me down. I remember crying to my fellow classmate Lesego – bless her heart. She listened patiently, and when I was done. She just said to me, unfortunately there is no other alternative but to just do it. I’m so grateful to her.

We are still at it, Miss Imposter and I. I’m more tolerant of her. I’m even starting to make friends with her. I realize that every stage of my life will require an engagement with her. I don’t feel as bad as I used to about it. I’m starting to understand that she comes with the territory. Every next level requires a different version of me. I might never get to a level where I’m fully confident, fully owning my place in the world and that is okay. I’m grateful that I don’t have to, to be successful. My name is Busisiwe Hlatswayo and I coach black women who like me suffer from the imposter syndrome, get to the next level of success in their careers.

The Dangers of The Mainstream Motivation Culture.

When I started the personal development reading culture, I read books like ‘Think and Grow Rich, ‘The Power of Positive Thinking, ‘How to Influence People, ‘The Secret’, etc. These books created for me role models like Napoleon Hill, Thomas Edison, Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, Toni Robinson, etc. I learned in these books that I have the power to change my own life and if I believe and work towards whatever I wanted then I could have it. The influence of these books contributed to the motivation and work ethic that probably allowed me a level of success that I have achieved and I am grateful.

However, these books also wounded my self-esteem.  The – ‘you can achieve all that you want if you put your mind to it, look at Thomas Edison or Dale Carnegie, they built America’ – dream left some important facts out of the conversation. What was left out was the privilege that came with whiteness. The cheap labour built American and American enterprises due to slavery and racial oppression.  It left out the challenges that I would face as a Black woman because of bias and lack of resources. The internalization of failures that I have experienced caused me not to believe in myself enough and not trust that I am working hard enough which was taught by motivation theory. When in reality, those so ‘failures’ were a result of the absence of a privileged background.

This crystallises the fact that the motivation culture and like many other dominant worldviews come from ‘whiteness’ as a universal perspective. The truth is, there are different obstacles to life that one could face because they are black, or female, or even both. Those experiences are not often as identical as they seem. Adopting that worldview leads to us judge our achievements or lack thereof, using a flawed standard. A standard that omits the lived experiences of those who do not have that privilege.

Are you guilty of these 5 mistakes new managers make?

Let’s first get this out of the way. I’m all for making mistakes. Fear of making mistakes is one of the reasons Black women hold themselves back from reaching for senior positions. By all means make mistakes, however, be open to feedback and be willing to learn and work with others. Here are 5 mistakes managers make that negatively impact the work environment and make it harder for a team to reach cohesion.

1. Not Realising the Power you Hold as a Manager.

We all know the cliche that says “people leave managers not companies” which I tend to agree with. It is true that one’s relationship with one direct manager is one of the most important relationships in one’s life. An individual that you see perhaps from 9-5 that makes decisions that directly impact your career has a huge bearing on the mental health of both parties. As a manager, be mindful of your power to impact the mental health of your subordinates. Tread respectfully, people’s lives and families are at stake.

2. Micro-Managing

Switching from a specialist role where your performance was mainly based on your own actions to now performing through others can be a challenge. Letting go of the need to control everything and learning to trust others may take some time but it has to be done. Your subordinates need to know that you trust them and that you think they are competent enough to do the job they were employed to do. They need to be allowed to exercise their competence with your support, not by your overbearing actions. Exceptions are for new employees who need more support while learning the ropes.

3. Inability to Delegate.

Linked to the same reason for micromanagement is the inability to delegate. This could be because you don’t trust others to handle the load or you are just used to working hard and have the need to appear busy to feel valued in your position. What you don’t realize is that while your head is down in the details, you are missing the bigger picture. You are unable to strategically influence your company through your position. The same tactics that got you into management positions are not the ones that will take you to senior leadership.

4. Not Realising The Tone You Set.

Even if you and your team work for the worst company, As a manager you are able to create an environment that somewhat insulates your team to create the best environment for everyone to excel in their position. You can create an environment of collaboration where people feel valued for their contribution and competence or you can do the opposite. Your leadership also sets the tone for the performance standards that are required of your subordinates and how those tasks get done.

5. Being All About The Job.

Your role as a manager is more than just issuing instructions and ensuring performance. Your role is also that of a support system for your subordinates. They need to know that even though the highest level of performance is expected of them and will be firmly enforced; they can always come to you for support to reach those standards. They can let you know when they are not doing well and will be supported.

Be careful that you don’t unintentionally create an environment that is unpleasant for your team.

Your role, in the long run, impact the growth capacity of the members of your team. They are not just there to do the job, they are there to learn and grow and they need to be exposed to opportunities that stretch them. When you don’t align yourself to push, compromise, and delegate work, you are holding yourself and the team back altogether. 

Don’t see eye to eye with your boss? Here’s what you should do.

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The workplace, just like any place where human beings interact, is complicated by relationships. It is often said that people do not leave jobs they leave their managers. Arguably, the workplace would be easy if people and therefore relationships were not so complicated. Just like the life partner you choose, or the business partner you choose will impact greatly the trajectory of your life and career. Your manager is a key player in your day to day life and therefore your mental health and overall productivity. We wish we could always leave relationships that we don’t like but sometimes that is not immediately possible. Here’s what I suggest you do when you and your boss just don’t have the greatest of relationships.

  1. Are you triggered? Check yourself first.

You are triggered when your response to a situation or a person is greater in proportion to the stimuli. The reason is usually that it triggers something that happened in the past. When you find yourself disliking a person for no reason, they usually remind you of a person in the past that acted similarly. This results in you not just responding to that person, but what that person subconsciously represents. You want to first ascertain whether there is something about them that triggers that you need to deal interpersonally so that it doesn’t trigger you so much anymore.

  1. Seek first to understand before seeking to be understood.

Your boss, like you, is human and therefore is not perfect. Just like you have a right to have stuff that is not so great about you all the time. People behave the way they do because of who they are, where they are from, and where they are. Often when you allow yourself to really see a person and understand why they would act in a way that’s unappealing to you, it becomes easier to tolerate their unappealing behavior and find strategies to navigate them.

  1. Get into their shoes.

There are a lot of things that become clearer to me why the bosses I did not have the greatest relationships with acted the way they did. I had this one black woman boss whom I heard later that she didn’t like me even though I thought we had a great relationship (a story for another day). I later learned that she had just gotten this job, where she was finally going to be at the top of the table. She had plenty of plans and even more insecurities along with a layout to augment her new position. We tried to warn her that the organization was not yet ready for that type of running and she took that as being unsupportive. We were motivated by the knowledge of the organization and not her personal goals. Our resistance to a new way of working was probably partly to the workload that was coming to us like a Tsunami out of nowhere. We just didn’t see each other.

  1. What are their goals?

Your job as a subordinate is to help your leader meet their objectives; to help them win. When you think about how the balanced scorecard is designed, helping your boss meet the objective of her responsibility is your job. When you do that well and they shine, they might not necessarily like you but have to value you. The other stakeholders will even force them to acknowledge you by singing your praises to them. If they are a decent person, they will come around to respecting you.

  1. Except….. if they are a narcissistic bully

Some people do not belong in the general population. They should either choose another career path, work in an office alone or at least be far away from you. They can’t be won over, can’t reason with them, can’t love or understand them. If you are working for a person like that, maybe start looking for a new job. Seek mental help support and keep all records like crazy. I know that the law doesn’t allow people to be recorded without their consent but nothing beats hard evidence if you are in an extreme situation. If you are planning to take them on, don’t do it alone. Get a therapist, coach, mentor, or a trusted friend to support you. Count the cost before you go to war. You may not win and the price for being right may not be worth it.

How seemingly objective policies or criteria can be used to keep black women out of positions of leadership in the workplace

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‘What’s Important for a Given Job? Whatever the Male Candidate Has.’ Williams & Dempsey (2014)

A lot of organisation pride themselves on having policies and procedures that are pro gender and race equality. It is often leaders of these companies who content themselves that they have done all that they could to level the playing field. That maybe there are just not enough black women who are capable. What they do not understand is that policies are not enough to ensure that black women are kept out of these positions and that policies can be used to keep black women out of these. The reasons for these gatekeeping activities are sometimes due to unconscious bias and at times intentional to rationalise keeping black women out. This type of bias casuistry, a technical term for what happens when people misapply general rules to justify a specific behavior or use inaccurate reasoning to rationalize their behavior.

The following is an example of a study that was done to illustrate this point:

‘In a control group in which the gender of the applicants was left ambiguous, 48 percent of the study participants ranked education as more important than experience, and 76 percent of participants chose the better-educated candidate over the candidate with more work experience.

But when the gender was made explicit, a striking pattern emerged. When the better-educated candidate was male, this pattern held: 50 percent of participants said education was more important than work experience, and 75 percent chose a better-educated male over a female with more experience.

But when the genders were switched, only 22 percent of participants said they would choose a better-educated candidate over a candidate with more work experience, and only 43 percent of participants chose the better-educated female. Study participants gave less weight to both education and work experience when a woman had them than when a man had them.’

This has led to black women to going to extreme lengths to get their feet in the door such as removing from their resumes any identifying characteristic that would identify them as black. For an example their black sounding names, any references to belonging to societies identified as black, removing some work experiences, etc.  

The danger with Casuistic bias is that people may think they’re using objective criteria to make their decisions when in fact they’re modifying the criteria used for judgment based on unconscious biases. In fact, some studies have shown that evaluators who shifted the criteria they used to make hiring decisions depending on the race or gender of an applicant actually rated themselves as more objective than those whose hiring criteria did not shift. Casuistry provides a disturbing illustration of the lengths people go to convince themselves they’re being objective even when they’re not.

That is the reason why measurement is necessary if a company is serious about increasing the representation of black women leaders in the workplace, have to introduce measurement. From the number of black candidates who are shortlisted to those who eventually get the job, promotion, etc. These metrices should be linked to performance in order to be effective. The other important thing is the posture of leadership when these type of biases are detected. The tone at the top, not only in words but in action, is important.

Why it is so difficult for Black women to make it to leadership positions at work?

This blog post has been adapted from the book ‘What works for women at work by Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey. They identify 5 patterns of bias against women when compared to men for promotion in the workplace.

Pattern 1: Men Are Judged on Their Potential; Women Are Judged on Their Achievements.

Pattern 2: What’s Important for a Given Job? Whatever the Male Candidate Has.

Pattern 3: Men’s Successes Are Attributed to Skill, While Women’s Are Overlooked or Attributed to Luck. With Mistakes, It’s Just the Opposite.

Pattern 4: Objective Requirements Are Applied Strictly to Women but Leniently to Men.

Pattern 5: Women Are “Gossiping”; Men Are “Talking about Business.”

We will tackle the first one in this article.

Pattern 1: Men Are Judged on Their Potential; Women Are Judged on Their Achievements.

It is harder for a woman to earn more money and get promoted  in a new company than by staying longer with a new employer. Women often found that they had to prove their competence again when they get new jobs. New companies expected them to prove again that they are competent where this is different with men. As a black woman who has changed employers a number of times in here career, I have often found this to be the case. My earnings did not show a straight upward trajectory, they often had to zigzag as I would be required to prove myself again. When men have the qualifications, are able to articulate themselves in the interview they are often given the benefit of the doubt.

Popular wisdom holds that one of the best ways to negotiate a higher salary is to be willing to move to a new company. This is true for men, who the non-profit Catalyst found earned nearly $14,000 more if they were at their second post-MBA job than if they were at their first post-MBA job. No such advantage was found for women. Women who had worked at three or more companies since receiving their MBAs earned an average of $53,472 less than those who stayed at their first post-MBA employer.

When a women and a man are considered for a promotion, it is often easier for a man to be judged on their potential and be given the benefit of the doubt. For women there feeling is often that it is too risky, the woman needs to prove herself.

One consultant sees this pattern every year, when she and her colleagues are deciding whom to promote to partner at her firm. “You see in those discussions where men often are given the benefit of the doubt: ‘This is such a strong senior manager; he’s a great guy; he’s really going to go places,’ ” she said. “And then you get to the discussion of some woman senior manager, and the discussion suddenly turns to, ‘Well, we think she’s talented, but she hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove it yet. Maybe she needs another year.’

Because women seem less natural fits for high-stakes jobs as compared to men, often they are seen as more of a risk for a promotion or an appointment than a comparable man. They are often given an assistant position or the position without the perks while they are proving themselves again.

We spoke with several women who said they were given a promotion but not the title or the increased salary that typically came with the new job. Often their supervisors have them “test out” the new position for months before they feel comfortable making the appointment official — or simply refuse to give them the title at all

Implication on the women’s career:

  1. If a woman is kept off important projects because she hasn’t proven herself yet on an important project, then she’s never going to get the experience on important projects.
  • It’s so prevalent that women may internalize it as a measure of their own competence
  • It impacts on their earnings when they get to new companies and have to earn the same or less while they prove themselves
  • Women required to display a higher confidence than the male equivalent to self-promote in other to counter these biases

One of the ways to confront this, that the authors advises is by asking your immediate superior what you can do to be able to be considered for a similar promotion or opportunity as your male counterpart.

The representation of black women in leadership in South Africa is not changing, here’s why.

Due to the impact of apartheid and colonialism, black people or people of color did not have access to positions of leadership in the workplace. In order to address this imbalance after the dawn of democracy in South Africa, policies like the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, Employment equity act and affirmative action were implemented to transform the face of leadership in the workplace to be more representative of the demographics of the country. The Employment Equity Commission is tasked with the responsibility to monitor and report annually on the progress of this transformation. The report shows a bleak picture and a very slow pace of transformation. The table below demonstrate how little change has been achieved in the Top leadership representation in the country between 2017 and 2019.

GroupAfrican FemaleAfrican MaleWhite MaleWhite Female
EAP36.2% 42,7%4,9%3.8%

*EAP – Economic Active Population

The figures above shows that black women who represent 36.2% of the active workforce (EAP) only make 5.4% of top management in South Africa, compared to white men who are 4.9% of the active workforce and make up 52.4% of top leadership, white women who are 3.8% of the active workforce and make up 13.2% of top leadership and finally to black men who represent (42.7%) of the working population and 9% of top leadership. Although there is a slow pace of representation for black people, black men are doing better than black women at 23% top leadership representation against 15% representation for black women.  The situation is not very different in the US according to the Leanin Women in the workplace report. The big difference is that black people are a minority in the US whilst in South Africa black people are the majority.  The pace is also very slow, the table above shows only a change of less than 1 % in the last 3 years.

The reason for this picture are both external and internal to black women in the workplace. External reasons are factors that black women do not have direct control over. They are based on how they are seen and treated in the workplace. They are Unconscious bias, Racism and Sexism. Racial discrimination happens when the people who are making leadership decisions believe that black people are inferior, lazy, corrupt and therefore incompetent to take on leadership. Sexism happens when people who make leadership decisions believe that women are inferior, weak, and emotional and therefore are not competent to take on leadership position. Black women face the double whammy of being both black and female. Unconscious bias leads to either racial discrimination or sexism/gender based discrimination. The difference is that unconscious bias is unconscious and not deliberate. People who are unconsciously biased against black women in the workplace may believe themselves to be fair and may even use policies, procedure and seemingly legitimate reasons to keep black women from advancing in the workplace.

Internal reasons are reasons that black women have control over. It is the things that black women can work on and be able to change. They are the following; conditioning in terms of how girls are raised, conditioning in terms of how black people have been conditioned to see themselves as inferior and individual trauma based on each black women’s life experience.

Conditioning – How girls are raised.

As we all know girls and boys are typically not raised the same. Because boys are raised to be providers. They are typically raised to have the skills that will help them go out into the world and compete for power, take risks, be ambitious, take leadership and control. These are the typical characteristics that are perceived as important in the workplace. Women on the other had are typically raised to become wives and mothers. They are therefore taught to be likable, nurturing, self-sacrificing, to serve, be humble, be good girls. These are the characteristics that are perceived as weak in the workplace.

Conditioning – how black people are conditioned to see themselves

In order to advance the oppression of black people. Black people have been conditioned to see themselves as inferior. Science has been used to prove that black people are less capable than white people. History has been used to portray black people’s history as that of barbarism, failure, singing and dancing.  Africa is known as the Dark Continent and has not been able to shake of that identiy. Black people carry the trauma of being discriminated against, of not being wanted and of having their ambition limited by external forces. This impacts on how they show up. Black women find themselves in the intersection of race and sexism

Our own personal trauma.

Finally personal trauma as a result of childhood wounds and personal life experience. The black experience is not the same, some black people come from middle class homes, with educated parents who might have supported and affirmed them. Some come from abject poverty, physical, verbal and sexual child abuse. Violence, abandonment and rejection. These are emotional scars that impact on how we show up in the workplace.

All of these are the factors that are stacked against black women’s progress towards leadership positions in the workplace.

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

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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.

When all you know is lack

When all you know is lack, you only have one weapon in your arsenal – hard work

And it’s unfortunately not enough. When you have been raised in an environment where all you know is lack. The only thing that is in your control is hardwork, not networks, not strategy but plain hard work.

When you have the humiliation of being a charity case, wearing people’s hand me downs, you make certain vows.

  1. You will help others who have gone through what you did. Most of the kinds of organizations that people who come from lack go for are charity organizations, with no concepts of funding except to ask for help. The thought of asking your beneficiaries for money seems wrong but churches and big businesses do it all the time.
  2. You learn that you never get the best but take what you can get. So you never negotiate your salary, you are willing to take anything that you are given because you are so used to the ‘beggars are not choosers mentality’ that you don’t realize that you are no longer a beggar. That you bring something to the table now and should be rewarded accordingly.
  3. All you know is an environment of scarcity and lack. That becomes your worldview. When naming your salary or prices for your services, you ask from a point of view of scarcity. You always undercharge.
  4. Any help you are offered feels like going back to the days of being a charity case. So you don’t ask for help. You don’t ask when you don’t know. You don’t delegate when you have subordinates. You don’t speak up when your plate is too full. You are suspicious of people who want to help you. Generous helpful people might wrongfully experience you as arrogant.
  5. You are always working hard. You leave last in the office. Yet you don’t get promoted because you are not strategic about what you work on
    and you are not leveraging the power of networks and relationships to help you move forward. People experience you as not being a team player.

Different results require a different strategy.

Gender and race bias and black women in the workplace.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on

Unconscious Bias is a natural part of being human. If we had to think everything through, everything would take so much time and we would probably not get anything done. So the mind stores patterns or categories for us to match things we see so we can quickly come to conclusions and make decisions. Although bias can express itself as racism and sexism, it is not always the cause. In this case then white people or men are not the problem nor the enemy but their actions which are as a result of their unconscious bias.

Malcolm Gladwell in one of his books, possibly Blink talks about a test that he took and studied that seeks to demonstrate unconscious bias. He was suprised at his own unconscious bias against people of color even though his own mother is a person of color. We all hold bias sometimes against people like ourselves. This may explain why some women who are in positions of leadership do not extend a hand of support to women below.

How do black women experience bias in workplaces? By the assumed lack of competence because they don’t ‘speak well’. Assumed junior status by people who have not been introduced to them. The emphasis on their qualifications when they are introduced, almost as a form of an explanation of why people like them are where they are.

Women are also suffer bias against expressing anger, black women in particular are seen to fulfil the stereotype of the angry black woman when they express their anger. Expressing an injustice is often seen as aggression and keeping quite is often seen as a sign of weakness or lack of assertiveness and therefore not having what it takes to be a leader. They find themselves having to walk a tightrope that’s undefined and very easy to get wrong.

Black women are dealing with bias and navigating office politics every day. The myth of merit and hard work is simply too simplistic and doesn’t not always hold true.