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:
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.
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.
*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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A lot has been said about the glass ceiling that keep women from reaching positions of executive leadership in the workplace. In South Africa, this seems to be changing. Examples like Yolanda Cuba (MTN) and Phuti Mahanyele (Naspers) in the private sector, in higher education; Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng (UCT), Prof Puleng Lenkabula (Unisa) and Dr Judy Dhlamini (Wits) and in the public sector, which has been exemplary in the promotion of diversity in leadership; the new auditor general, minister of small business,etc. The glass ceiling is finally cracking.
However, the greatest barrier that black women face in advancing to leadership is getting the first management position . The SA Economic Equity report shows that in entry level positions the split between man and women is almost equal, however things look different when it comes to management, women especially black women start lagging behind. The Lean in Women in the workplace report calls this the ‘broken wrung’ of the ‘corporate ladder’.
One of the factors that underly this occurrence is gender bias. The bias of seeing men as competent because of their gender and white women as more competent than black men and women because of their race. Research shows that affirmative action often benefits white women more than any other disadvantaged category.
The other issue that contributes to this unbalanced state is the lack of sponsors for black women. Sponsors are people who are in leadership position and places where decisions are made who can advocate for their mentees when promotion opportunities or exciting projects arise. Black women often lack sponsors who would advocate for their promotions due to the barriers to networking for black women, e.g. most senior positions are held by white man, white women and black men which present a racial, cultural and gender barrier to creating relationships with these people for black women.
Finally the internalisation of these stereotypes by black women themselves. The conditioning that teaches black women that they are inferior, unworthy and do not have personal power. Some of these are brought about the trauma that is as a result of socio-economic conditions that black women are raised in.
The mission of the Black women in the workplace organization is to help companies create an enabling environment for the advancement of black women into leadership positions and to create a pipeline of black women who are ready for leadership; by helping them overcome their internalised unworthiness brought about by conditioning and stereotyping.
Most of the successful black women are the first in their home. The first to graduate university, the first to work in corporate, the first to own a car, the first and sometimes the only. Even though this can lead to a sense of accomplishment. The fulfilment of a vow that every black child who grew up in poverty makes; to be their family’s hero. To be successful so they can build their parents a home and change the family narrative of poverty and failure.
Dr Harville Hendriks in his book ‘Getting the love you want’ teaches about the parts system. That as human beings, we are living with contradictory part of ourselves. He explains it well in the context of a relationship, where part of you is loving towards your partner and the other only sees the worst in them. Another example is when the brave, daring part of you is seeking a relationship and the fearful part of you or the protector as he calls it sabotages any relationship you have to protect the alienated/hidden part of you. This hidden part is usually our inner child that is trying to protect us from a similar wounding/traumatic event that may have happened to us as a child.
Survivor’s guilt is a type of self-guilt that takes place after a traumatic event. People may feel guilty for surviving or avoiding some type of harm when others did not. Many successful black women, like any survivors of trauma; whether it is the direct trauma of poverty or the shared trauma of racial oppression in its many facets, struggle with survivor’s guilt. We harbor a subconscious belief that our success is a betrayal to our parents and family. That our success highlights the unfairness of the fact that we have opportunities that they couldn’t have. That we were able to do more with our lives than they did. The more successful we are the more unfair it is that they couldn’t be.
We may hold the subconscious belief that the more successful we become the stronger the contrast between us and them. That we may be demonstrating that we are more gifted than they are, wiser than they are, more responsible than they were. It removes them from the seat of being our hero to being somewhat inferior to us. So we don’t talk about our ambitions around them, we pretend it is because we don’t think they will understand. But the real reason is because we feel guilty that we want even more success, when what is we have is already so much more than they have.
To appease our guilt we find ways to sabotage ourselves. We put on the brakes to our career advancement. We avoid taking actions that will accelerate our success. We put a subconscious ceiling to the amount that we are willing to earn. If we accidentally exceed that amount we find ways to dissipate it. We register and drop out of advanced degrees. We delay our career advancement so long that when we finally advance it is no longer a big deal. We hide ourselves at work and complain that we are not acknowledged when we hate having positive attention drawn to us. We project our lack of forward movement to those in authority so that we don’t have to deal with the real truth. When the real truth is that we feel like impostors, the ones that got away, when others didn’t.
Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo.
I help black women overcome the subconscious beliefs that keep (delay) them from advancing in their careers. I help them navigate workplace issues that are at the intersection of race and gender.
Black people share a history of trauma. The trauma transcends our upbringing. Even if you have grown up in a wealthy family, with parents who loved and nurtured you in all the ways that a child needs. You still share the ancestral trauma of slavery, colonialism and apartheid. I don’t know about you but when I watched the video of the murder of George Floyd, I felt the trauma of being black in America. He was me, he looked like me. His life didn’t matter, mine didn’t.
Due to racial oppression, most of us come from a life of poverty. Yes it was hard but it was not all misery. We found joy in our sense of community. We shared the little that we could and found moments of joy. Our trauma bonded us to each other. We were the underdog, fighting against a system that sought to keep us under. Every black child who had ambitions to succeed wanted to do it to save her family from poverty and to help her community.
Just like every beautiful thing, this bond has a shadow. It has its toxic side. If we bond over suffering, what happens when I am not suffering anymore? What happens when I make money, hold seats of power, what have I in common with my people? Trevor Noah in his book talks about this in his book ‘Born a crime’. He talks about how the township seeks to keep you in it, even if it means sabotaging your own success. He makes an example of a friend of his who had left his job after a short time just to fit back in with his friends.
As unbelievably as it may seem we do sabotage our success because of loyalty to the shared bond of suffering with our people. I have coached people who can’t spend money on themselves because they feel it’s stealing from others. Who can’t speak about their success because they don’t want to seem like they are bragging. Who keep themselves from earning more money because they are afraid to say no to those who ask them for money, they’d rather not have it so they don’t have to lie. People who avoid upgrading their lifestyle because it would look like they have a lot. Women who hold themselves back because they are afraid of being too successful to attract a man or to outshine their man.
Is it possible that one of the reasons we don’t have enough black women in positions of leadership is because they sabotage their success in order to belong?
One of the beliefs that hold black women back from successful careers in the workplace is the belief that they are not good enough. If they are qualified enough then they don’t have enough experience, or don’t know enough, or any other reason that they give themselves for why they can’t have the kind of careers they want. Besides the obvious historical reason of conditioned black inferiority in order to advance slavery and colonialism. Black women often find the corporate world a foreign place. A place where they don’t fit, where they don’t understand the rules, where their hard work does not necessarily pay off. Besides being good at the job itself, black women have to maneuver a foreign culture, often without any mentors because they are the first in their families. I will use my experience to explain.
I grew up in the township, what Americans would call the ghetto. Everyone around me was black. I was book smart and was validated by my teachers and peers. I know how to maneuver this place, I was in many ways comfortable. I had also noticed that in my community black people had an interesting relationship to white people. They both hated and revered them as superior. The expression that was ascribed to a person who is accused of thinking they were superior was that they thought they were white. To aspire to be better or superior was associated with aspiring to whiteness, whether conscious or unconscious.
I went to a predominantly white university and for the first time in my life I didn’t fit. I didn’t know how to navigate this world. The black people who seemed comfortable either came from middle class families and or had studied in multiracial high schools. My confidence took a knock and I started failing dismally, from a student who never knew failure it was a hard knock. I still worked hard but I was still struggling. We hurdled together with a few friends who were also struggling and limped to the finish line.
My first real job was in one of the Big 4 Audit firm and again I didn’t fit. I was black, didn’t have a car and didn’t speak well. I was starting from the back foot and I was just not fitting in. There was no one to talk to about this at home since I was the first to graduate and have a corporate job. No one understood and I felt lost and not good enough. Just like in University I was failing again. I was getting into a depression when I stumbled into a book whose title I can’t remember. In it there was a chapter on how to double your income in 90 days. At last! I had a manual. I applied the principles, 90 days later I was in a different company and job, earning double my income. A year later I was promoted, then every two years after that applying the same principles and the others I was learning from reading more books. I had found the manual, the road map, the compass.
I realized that the problem was not that I was not good enough, it was that I was in a foreign space, with no guidance on how to maneuver that space. If I had found myself in India, or China, I would initially struggle if I didn’t have guidance about how to navigate the culture. I would not assume that I was not good enough I would know that I just needed to understand the culture
I had a privilege of coaching a young African American women and I got a glimpse into how difficult it was to live in a country where you are a minority and a despised minority. Where most of the spaces that you have to inhabit, you are not right, you don’t fit. I also realized that it is the same thing in Corporate South Africa. Even though black people are the majority in South Africa, the corporate space is quite western.
When we as black women find ourselves in such spaces we often assume that we don’t know enough, that we are inferior. Because we had been conditioned to believe so and don’t often don’t have the inner knowing of our worth to fall back on. I now understand then African American obsession with representing stories of black excellence. It is to build that inner sense of worth that we all need to have.
This is one of the reason that inspired me to start Black women in the workplace. I want to help black women identify the conditioning that keeps them from having successful and thriving careers. That is also the reason I created the Re-imagined workplace program for black women in the workplace. I wanted to give them the tools to build successful careers even in those ‘foreign’ spaces and be able to separate their sense of worth with being different.
I have just finished reading a book called ‘Mistakes I’ve made at work’ by Jessica Bacal. It is a collection of stories by very successful women like Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, Carol Dwek author of Mindset: the new psychology of success and many others of mistakes they have made in their careers.
There are two stories in particular that stood out for me in that book. One was by Carla Harries, she narrated a mistake that she had made when she was in investment banking that cost her company money. One of her colleagues kept talking about it with other people until she decided to confront him .
She said the following to him:
“You’ve always been very supportive of me, and I know you want to see me do well. I just want to let you know that I understand the significance of this mistake; I learned from it, and I understand it was expensive. You don’t need to keep talking about it and I’m sure I won’t hear from you about it again, right?”
I thought that was such a courageous thing to do, and an exemplary way of managing such a situation
I believe that this is a very important book to have been written. As women, maybe more than men, we struggle with perfectionism and her twin sister, the good girl. This is because we have been socialised to seek to be liked. That our power is linked to how attractive and likeable we are.
I also think the reason why we do not talk about mistakes is because we have a need to create heroes, role models, idols which we can worship. The heroes have to be perfect, experts who have all the answers. We love stories of geniuses who have all the answers and are exceptional. This allows us excuses for why we cannot make it because after all we are mere mortals.
Dr Brenne Brown who researches shame and vulnerability talks about how people appreciate stories of vulnerability from others but do not like sharing their stories of vulnerability. In our weakest moments we don’t just want to hear about those who made it without making any mistakes. We want to hear that they have had moments of questioning themselves, that they don’t always feel confident and are not in top form all the time. We want to know that it is okay to be flawed. That we are still worthy of success, and to be seen and heard.
The next personally significant story in that book is by Dr Carol Dweck. She talked about how she avoided people who are impressed by her. The reason was that she was afraid that if she spent too much time with them, they might find out that she’s not as good as she appears and therefore lose their approval. As a result she lost out on mentors. I could so relate to this story because I too can remember a number of possible mentors that I turned my back on because I was so afraid that I will make a mistake and loose their approval.
One of the most important resolutions I made in my reflection during the COVID19 lock down is that I am going to run my business differently. That I will throw out the lie that I need to prove that I am good enough, that I am an expert, a perfect example in order to attract clients to my business. I decided I was going to bring all of me to the table. That I was going to give myself permission to be more vulnerable and more authentic with my clients.
I really think it is important to have a commitment to excellence, however I do think there is space for vulnerability. We can give ourselves permission to bring our whole selves to the table, including what we consider as flaws. Especially as black women, who are carrying a burden of being told for centuries that who they are is wrong, does not fit, is not acceptable. This requires courage but never perfection.