Office advice for women of color who know that leaning in doesn’t always work

Hi, ZORA readers. In future columns, I will be answering your questions about confronting the different “-isms” at work. But for today’s column, I’m going to first talk about why we are here.

Intimidating. Abrasive. Unapproachable. Negative. Aggressive. Combative. Bitch.

These are but a handful of words that have been used to describe me at various points in my career. I was once told that I was making my boss look stupid by asking him questions in a meeting about a process he wanted to implement but couldn’t explain. He went on to tell me that I was a “college professor,” but what they really needed for my job was a “third-grade teacher.” Imagine my surprise when he declined to promote me and increase my salary so both would be in alignment with my true (over)qualifications and performance. Instead, he and several others in leadership waged a campaign to discredit me and force me out by relegating me to the sidelines, reporting to someone who had no understanding or appreciation for my role or skills.

I learned a tough lesson then. A high profile job, an excellent network of powerful women, and my expertly executed resume prepared me for work, but did not prepare me for the “-isms” in the workplace. See, I thought earning my PhD would be my ticket to freedom. I figured it would finally be the end of being doubted, dismissed, disregarded, disrespected, and discriminated against at work. Yet, studies have shown that for Black women specifically, attainment of advanced degrees doesn’t necessarily mitigate workplace misogynoir. And for Black women without advanced degrees, the disparities can be worse. So, how do we get ahead when the man, quite literally, holds us back?

That’s where I come in. After years of real-time experience and training in industrial/organizational psychology, I now help women help themselves despite tough circumstances. I helped a woman navigate a strategic exit from a prestigious university that, official HR documents confirmed, paid her considerably less than what was budgeted. I coached another woman through a weird situation with a male manager, who followed her to the bathroom and stood outside while she urinated, waiting for her to return to her desk. We worked on building a case for HR to show the woman wasn’t being paranoid, she was being stalked.

Women of color, in particular, are underemployed, paid lower wages than most, and are expected to do more work than our colleagues, while also being casually asked to take notes during the all-staff meeting or clean up the office kitchen. No one notices but us — and the folks keeping track of these studies. I’ve seen how some White employees and male employees are granted extensive leeway to be wrong, make mistakes, even misspend millions of dollars, while women of color are expected to flawlessly do the work of three people and smile in gratitude for having been given a job at all. (If you’re not familiar with the plethora of studies on this topic, for a quick primer, check out Racism and Sexism Combine to Shortchange Working Black Women and Failure Is Not An Option For Black Women.)

What we’re not going to do in 2020 is dismiss the struggles of our sisters because “that hasn’t happened to me.” No one is making up stories of discrimination or harassment purely for entertainment value.

Here’s my backstory: Several years ago, I didn’t know many professionals who were comfortable talking to me about these sordid experiences. But as I went on to graduate school, I began meeting other highly educated women of color; women with JDs, MDs, PhDs, PsyDs — you name it. Women at the top of their crafts and industries; well-heeled, well-known, running their own businesses, and just winning at life. Like me, they had been taught how to create a resume, write a compelling cover letter, and proper interview etiquette and technique. And while we all told some iteration of “you have to work twice as hard to get half as much” growing up, nothing prepared us for how the “-isms” showed up at work following the civil rights movement. When I finally realized that my experiences weren’t unique, and the way I had been treated was pervasive across several industries, I was shocked and saddened. But mostly, I was terrified.

Tell me if any of this sounds familiar to you: Are you a top performer who was passed over for a promotion, and you’re not sure why (but you know why)? Is your workload heavier than that of your peers? Is your team under-resourced, or are you constantly having to fight for funding for your initiatives? Is your margin for error “zero” while others are able to get away with workplace murder unscathed? Are you the “only” one in the room? In the company?

If so, you are not alone, and you will survive. That said, if left unchecked, the cumulative effect of facing the “-isms” every day at work can be devastating. Workplace harassment can lead to depression, a significant loss in wages, and in some cases, death. I don’t tell you that to scare you, but to help you understand that implementing effective coping strategies could save your life.

The year 2019 is coming to a close, and you might have a few moments for self-reflection if you are lucky enough to have any time off at all. Here, then, are some ways you can use that precious time to protect your psyche while navigating the world of work:

  • Talk about what you are experiencing. Sharing my own stories was one of the best things I could have done because I learned I wasn’t the problem. Too often, we are afraid or ashamed to share our stories because we think they are so outrageous that they must only be happening to us. Discovering the bias I was experiencing was pervasive was simultaneously the best and worst news I could have hoped for.
  • Believe other women. What we’re not going to do in 2020 is dismiss the struggles of our sisters because “that hasn’t happened to me.” No one is making up stories of discrimination or harassment purely for entertainment value. What is happening to us is real, and we must stand with and up for each other in order to fight back.
  • Always trust your gut because your gut is never wrong. Olivia Pope taught us that, and if there’s one thing to take away from Scandal or from this column, it’s to get in touch with your gut, your “Spidey senses,” your third eye. If it looks like bias, it sounds like bias, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, it’s probably something. Start believing yourself, and resist the temptation to ignore that little voice saying, “Molly… you in danger girl.” It is there to help you avoid bad situations at work. And now, so am I.

Originally Published on Zora