What It's Like to Be a Black Woman in Corporate America…

black girls in usa

I am black and I am a woman. I am not from an affluent background. I was raised by a single parent, and yes, I do wear my hair natural, unapologetically! I have few if any reservations in expressing myself, my culture, my heritage, or my ethnicity. I have been Black my entire life, and have gotten to be quite comfortable in my skin.

Being black and being a woman is how I identify myself. Though I see myself as an individual, I view my ethnicity as strongly as I view myself. I am constantly reminded of my racial or ethnic identity by persons of other ethnicities who ask me questions about my hair or what are Fulani braids. Black people are overtly generalized with expectations of full up-to-date knowledge of our culture and viewed as answerable to any controversy or particular misbehavior involving any black person. Even when I know or have an informed opinion on the controversial issues of the day, it doesn’t follow that I should have to explain or defend them with anyone.

Yet in the diverse work environments of today, to avoid coming off as unfriendly, or sensitive, I feel I have to find the right words and deliver them with the right tone to persuade my colleagues that I am sufficiently informed and on board with their views. I have even felt a need to express contriteness in the face of particularly egregious behavior of people I don’t even know anything about but their race. It’s like being conditioned to gauge and when necessary adjust myself to expand the comfort zone of others, else risk being viewed as contributing to their anxiety.

I am smart and have proven myself to have what it takes to compete successfully in corporate America. Graduated from one of the top business schools in the country and currently work as an IT consultant with one of the most prestigious consulting firms in the world. I have high expectations of myself and aspire to be a business leader in my firm one day. Such an achievement would make me one of the few minority business leaders to reach the C-Suites. So why do I feel my career journey is more challenging than that of others? Why is it that no one like me has become a common fixture in top C-suite level roles? For decades, now companies have made a big deal of their efforts to respect diversity and promote the development of people of color, to make sure they feel accepted and included. But where is the change?

Somehow, in spite of all the hard work and accomplishments, I have a sense of hopelessness despair, questioning whether there is anything I can actually do to be recognized and rewarded. It’s one thing to get a merit award accompanied by congratulatory remarks, and another to get a promotion and double-digit raise that actually affects my coins! With all the conscious and unconscious biases and culturally embedded stereotyping that have been institutionally adopted in performance assessment routines in corporate America, it’s a wonder that anyone of color even approaches the “glass ceiling” much less breaks through it.

Special strategies such as “code-switching” are required to manage around and where possible assimilate in sensitive conversations with my colleagues and managers. Anything that may reveal an ethnic affinity has a capacity to introduce disharmony and anxiety in the workplace. Even my fellow minority colleagues sometimes give me the side-eye for showing my “color”.

So why do we put up with that? Why do we still believe that hard work and our sincere best efforts will one day make a difference? It’s part and parcel of our belief in ourselves. We believe that our professionalism, integrity, and character are reflected in our work. A half-ass effort at work, speaks poorly of me, while a sincere, whole-hearted effort speaks well of me. I believe that in general, we work for the opportunity to pursue interesting and meaningful work and get paid well for it. If there are promotions and recognition in store, that’s great, but if not, I have two questions: Did I do my best, and am I sufficiently compensated for my time? In effect, I learn to ignore the bullshit and smile, continuing to perform to advance my career, even when I sense that it may be merely to achieve longevity on the job.

I want to be rewarded and be recognized for my work efforts, but I’m as well aware that I’ve got to believe that somehow, somewhere in the corporate hierarchy there is someone of sufficient character and professional integrity to look past their bias and even prejudice to do the right thing. But even if they don’t, my God I know that I will never sabotage myself or my prospects by striking out or slacking off on my work assignments. Even the notion of changing employers carries risk without any guarantees of a difference. Not to be pessimistic, but when you live and work in a society that can one day express great open-mindedness and hope by electing a black president, and another day justify taking babies from refugee parents desperately seeking safety for their family, it’s hard to justify that our country is moving in the right direction or not.

African-American women accumulate the most university degrees than any other race or gender, so why are we still left behind? When is our time to shine? Why is it 2018, and we still have the first African-American to achieve this or that milestone? Why is it that we have to work twice as hard just to keep up with the predominant ethnicity in the workplace? We all know what it’s like to meet a manager and I wonder how in the hell did he or she get that role?

It’s not hard to see why so many black women are working for themselves, dabbing themselves into the entrepreneurial world because we are so sick and tired of having our beauty, our voice, our presence taken advantage of and appropriated. Entrepreneurial efforts are incredibly risky and ultimately costly in personal time and financial terms, but the perspective returns may be worth it. Generation of personal wealth is seldom the endgame of entrepreneurial efforts, the fulfillment of a passion and to be one’s own boss may be the measure of success.

We have to start changing the idea and the measure of success. We need to change the view of diversity and inclusion. I’m not just talking about hiring more black women, but getting financers to take more risk in financing minority businesses, and schools to be more adept at educating and preparing our kids for the challenges of life. We need more equal representation of all kinds of individuals in the workplace, in the community, and in all levels and positions of public and private institutions. Invest in ourselves and our communities to create generational wealth and opportunity, and not just for ourselves. We need to encourage more minorities and underprivileged people to feel more empowered to take on roles that fulfill their dreams personally and professionally. Senior leaders need to provide more mentorships and to be willing to step outside of their comfort zones. We’re not looking for a hero, we are seeking a fair shot. We are not there yet, and we won’t get there without a deliberate effort at sponsorship and development that reach back and pull forward! So let’s get this thing rolling! If not you, then who! If not now, then when!

What are your thoughts about diversity in the workplace? Are we progressing or is it still stagnant? Comment below!
Featured photo: Un-ruly

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