Black women do not enjoy the luxury of assumed competence. They are in-fact considered incompetent until they can prove that they are. I know many senior women who had at least one instance where they we assumed to be a junior employee.
In my experience in working with white people I was often fascinated by how I was introduced together with my qualifications. It would always be this is Busi, she holds this position and she holds an MBA. It was almost as if they are answering a question that they think that person must be asking, that what is a black women in this position, it’s because she has an MBA. Of course it might be an unconscious bias but it is there all the same.
Black women still hold the least senior positions in many organisations and are often ‘the only black women there’. This often results in the attitude in those black women that they cannot make mistakes because they will be proving the stereotypes to be true. It also means that they have to be careful with the expression of their anger because they might be fulfilling the stereotype of being emotional or of being the angry black woman. This results in the need to prove their worth and we their right to be in those positions.
This is emotionally unhealthy and may feel like waiting to exhale. It might also lead to a need to focus on minor details to avoid making mistakes. Working too long hours and not taking or having time to create networks. It can also open us up to being overworked because we are afraid to say no and have a need to prove that we can handle any type of workload. That we are not lazy and incompetent. This is not sustainable and can lead to burnout.
I remember watching Viola Davis’s character on the series ‘How to get away with murder’ and struggling with whether to like or dislike her character. One minute I was rooting for her and another I disapproved of her. I realised that my struggle was the need for people to be good or bad, to fall neatly into the two opposites. I could not accept her as she is, with both her flaws, great qualities and intrinsic worth as a human being.
I was having the same internal battles, the struggle to accept my flawed self. I had to be perfect, never make mistakes. As a result I avoided staying in companies or positions for too long, I needed to leave while they were still impressed with me. I knew I could not sustain perfection for too long and I couldn’t bear making a mistake and suffering their dis-approval. It was a trap and I believe that it delayed the trajectory of my career because I had a better chance to grow in to senior positions quicker once I built that trust. The fear of making a mistake can also lead us to not take risks and put ourselves up for positions where we cannot guarantee that we will not make mistakes. We might wait until we are overqualified before we apply for more senior roles, thereby slowing down our financial and career growth.
You might be looking at this title and think of course I am negotiating for a yes, why would I negotiate for a no? Well you might be surprised. Even though the world has changed and it is now commonplace that women will have careers. Women are still raised to be wives and mothers, which means they have to have qualities that are attractive to the male gender and qualities that are nurturing and put others first to prepare them for motherhood. Mothers are not expected to put their needs first, they are expected to sacrifice themselves for the needs of others. These are often qualities that are contrary to what it takes to be successful in the workplace. Qualities like assertiveness, ambition and competitiveness.
Because of our need to be liked we tend to shy away from displaying assertive behavior. Which to be fair, research shows that it can be perceived as bossyness if displayed by a women. To compensate for this we tend to overthink our ‘ask’, overcompensate when asking, or be passive hoping that other will know and do what is fair for us. We then feel disillusioned when our needs are not being met. One of the ways this plays out is by negotiating against ourselves. Negotiating against yourself is when you give the person you are negotiating with, all the reasons to say no to you. We often do it to show that we have considered their position but we often do it to our detriment. It may work when we negotiate with women because they might see where we are coming from but if done with assertive men or women who negotiate to win we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
I once did the same where I asked for a favor from a guy at work and promised him something I knew he wanted in return. Because I felt that the favor was too much to ask I said to him that I would give him that something in return anyway even if he did not do what I was asking for. Guess what? He said no but still wanted what I had promised to give him anyway. I couldn’t believe how selfish he could be. Until I realized that yep I just negotiated against myself!
Some tips to consider when negotiating are the following
Use data to back up your ‘ask’ it is very difficult to dispute the facts.
Ask for what you want and stop talking, don’t feel the need to fill the silence
Don’t speak against yourself to soften the situation.
Don’t be passive and hope the other party will do what is fair, state clearly what you want and why.
s black women we are often told that no one expects us to be competent, therefore we have to work harder than everyone else to be noticed. Although research does show that man and white people are easily assumed to be competent than black people and women. Black women find themselves at the intersection between race and gender bias against assumed competence. Having said that though, there is danger in internalizing that bias for black women in the workplace.
Let us start by analyzing the statement of working harder than other everyone else in order to be noticed. How does one measure working harder than everyone else? How do you know when you have worked harder than everyone else and are now worthy of being noticed?
Research show that women tend to minimize their achievements based on their conditioned need to be liked. Girls are taught that they are liked for their attractiveness and ability to take care of others, not for their intelligence, ambition and competitiveness. LeanIn’s study on women in the workplace talks about the likability bias which is if a women is considered competent then she is not considered nice enough and if she is nice then she is not considered competent.
This can lead to women either minimizing their achievements or not talking about them at all. Women are more likely than men in performance assessments to rate themselves lower than their male colleagues who may work less than them. Due to their conditioning women may have a difficult time recognizing how hard they work and therefore how much recognition they are due. Therefore may never ask for what their work is worth or have the confidence to present themselves for roles that they do not think they are qualified for.
I realized that I had long held a subconscious belief that no matter how hard I worked, I could never expect to be compensated fairly, let alone generously for the work that I do. This finally hit me when I was approached for a position that I was well qualified. I was asked how much I expected to be paid per month for the position. I quoted a bit higher than I thought I could earn and even justified the amount I asked for in case they thought it was too high, using the fact that it was a temporary position. A day after I submitted this information I saw the actual advert for the post and noticed that the amount I asked for was R6000 less than the minimum and over R40000 less than the maximum advertised for the position.
If we as black women continue to hold and internalize such beliefs about what our work is worth, we may never close the gender pay gap and catch-up to our male counterparts. We may never have control over the gender stereotypes that still prevail in our workplaces but we do have control on the beliefs and attitudes that we internalize which influence how we show up and assert ourselves.
Have you ever been rejected for a position that you know you qualify for, prepared and presented yourself very well in the interview? It is even worse where you never hear from the company and you either see the job re-advertised or hear that someone has been hired? Are you one of those people that think ‘aargh I’m fabulous and if they don’t recognize it then it’s their loss’? Or are you like the rest of us mere mortals who feel all those buried feelings of rejection, not good enough, not fitting in get triggered and throw us hopefully into a just ‘mini’ short term depression?
I’ve had one of those interviews where I had the required experience and qualifications for the job. I actually had more qualifications than the job required and had worked both in the level that the job was pitched on and on a level higher. I knew I could do that job with my eyes closed. The job required the technical skills, the ability to build and create relationship and create structure. Qualities that I know I am good at. I also believe that I am a decent communicator and am not worried about being unable to communicate those well and strongly in the interview.
I did not get the job, to make matters worse I heard on the grapevine that another black woman was appointed for the job. That should have made me feel better but it actually made me feel worse because clearly race was not an issue. If race was not an issue then it meant that I was either not good enough for the role or had failed to convince them that I was, which would still be a failure on my part. I started thinking that maybe I had forgotten how to interview and will struggle getting another job.
But wait a minute……. Is this true? Can I know it for a fact that I am the reason that I did not get the interview?
When I was done feeling sorry for myself and started doing the inner work on this situation. I realized that I had internalized the whole thing as a rejection and had not considered other possibilities. What if they already had someone in mind for the job? What if they thought I was over qualified for the position? What if they thought I wouldn’t fit their company culture? What if the hiring manager just took a disliking to me for whatever reason? All of these possibilities have nothing to do with my competence and skills yet I had focused on internalizing it. I had decided that this was a measure of my worth, competence and ability to move forward.
If you ever find yourself in a similar situation of course analyze whether you were the best fit for the post. You could also ask for feedback from the interviewer to understand where you could have gone wrong. I would suggest though that before you decide that failing an interview is a measure of your competence and worth, consider other possibilities. I once coached a client who reflected that growing up anything that happened to her was somehow her fault. If someone beat her up then how she provoked them, she realized that that’s how she reacts to everything that happens to her by finding a reason why she could be at fault. Re-affirm yourself and focus on improving and developing your skills and looking for other opportunities. Sometimes the failure has nothing to do with you.