There are always places where you may feel like you don’t belong. I went to Warwick University, which is a very white, middle-class university, and after growing up in south London, it came as a real culture shock. But when I was applying, I hadn’t thought about the culture; I’d just thought about attending an excellent university that was good for my course.
The same thing happened when I graduated and ended up in my first job in banking. My boss was white, his boss was white, even the boss’s boss was white – and so I began to question if I could thrive and be my authentic self within this culture. It can be so competitive to get a job when you graduate that you often feel you have to compromise on culture simply to get your foot in the door of these major companies. However, I realised very quickly that it’s not always easy to hit the ground running when there are unspoken and unwritten rules about how to get ahead as a black woman in a predominantly white and male workplace. Things such as a lack of mentorship, not having role models from similar backgrounds in senior positions, and daily microaggressions all reinforce the exclusionary set-up of such work environments.
One of the first jobs I applied for at the age of 20 was with a hedge fund in Mayfair. On my CV was Google’s Top Black Talent - a mentoring programme at Google I’d completed, which was aimed at giving high-achieving black students career guidance. However, just before submitting my CV, I looked at the website and saw a team made up of old, white men. I wanted my CV to fit in as much as possible, which I sadly interpreted as reducing my ‘blackness’, so I took the Google programme off.
It was such a negative way of looking at my identity, but not without reason. In 2012, an All-Party Parliamentary Group report warned that ethnic minority women are discriminated against at every stage of the recruitment process, with some finding “markedly better results when they changed their names to disguise their ethnicity”. Years later, I’d co-write a book and proudly include ‘the black girl bible’ as its subtitle. We should never have to compromise and suppress who we are in order to fit into a monotone culture and be successful.
I believe we shouldn’t have to play the game in order to get by. Instead, we should be able to change it for the better. After a few years in work and co-writing Slay in Your Lane, I’ve come to realise the value that different perspectives bring to the table, rather than trying to fit in. My identity as a black woman is of value, but unfortunately not all workplaces have caught up.
Many fail to recognise the challenges that black women face in the workplace - our hair being deemed ‘unprofessional’, our struggle to assert ourselves without being labelled with the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype, and our daily encounters with microaggressions that challenge and undermine us in the office.
These microaggressions are small, subtle incidences of prejudice and discrimination, such as asking a British person of colour where they are ‘actually’ from. While they might be unintentional, they can make you feel marginalised. I remember being in a meeting after being promoted to a manager and putting forward an idea, only for a white male colleague to call me a ‘junior’ in front of everyone. It was a way for him to undermine my point, to make sure that I knew my place. Afterwards, I pulled him aside to address this, and although we were able to move forward, I shouldn’t have had to be in that position.
The reality is that black women have to work twice as hard to get ahead. In a study called 'Double Jeopardy? Gender Bias Against Women of Colour in Science', published by WorkLife Law, 60 female scientists of colour were surveyed, and it was found that black women have to “provide more evidence of competence than others to prove themselves to colleagues”. After all that effort, many black women don’t want to speak out about race-related issues because there’s a penalty for doing so. You can easily get a reputation for being ‘arrogant’ or ‘sassy’ or ‘angry.’ No one wants to jeopardise that hard work by being penalised professionally. But the end result is that many black women feel that they can’t bring their authentic selves to work.
If you do feel the need to call someone out for their behaviour, my advice is to make a record of everything you’ve experienced. Understand the HR process, then go to your manager - they have a duty of care to you. If the manager is the issue or the situation continues then it may be time to move on. Things are slowly changing and there will be other companies you can work for that will value your contribution and will help you to thrive.
Conversations on race and inclusivity are a hot topic right now, but companies need to do more than just pay lip service to these topics. Celebrating Diversity Week, International Women’s Day or Pride once a year is not a free pass to mask toxic work cultures and practices.
So I urge you to think about your own place of work - does it cater for all women? Is there anything you can do to make it a thriving environment for a diverse workforce? We all have a responsibility to implement change. There are so many ambitious black women out there - it’s time to tap into the wealth of talent.
Be Grateful For What You Have
COVID-19 has proven to be a difficult and frustrating time for everybody. But for those of us who remain healthy along with our family and friends, and who are not risking their lives as essential workers, take this time to be grateful for your and your loved ones’ wellbeing.
Rediscover Your Pastimes
When focusing on our careers, we can become so overwhelmed with the hustle that we neglect the things that once made us feel fulfilled. For those of you who have found yourself with lots of surplus time, take it as an opportunity to reconnect with pastimes you once found life-affirming.
Define Yourself Outside Of Work
In the past, we may have found it hard to justify investing time in things and people that bring us joy. During lockdown, become proactive in doing things outside of work which are more or as important to your sense-of-self.
Ask Yourself ‘Why Am I Doing This?’
When setting goals, give them focus by asking yourself what, why, and when: What do you want? Why do you want it? And when do you want it by? This is an effective way of making sure that you’re securely centred in your goals, instead of them being shaped by what others are doing.
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