For many Black women in today’s workforce, whether in a boardroom, or Csuite, getting ahead can often feel like a constant battle. Too often, cultural stereotypes and unrealistic expectations can place black women leaders in precarious situations. And while issues surrounding race are gradually improving in countries like the United States, the hurdles that black women face in the workplace can still be career-changing.
In many workplaces, even “woke” workplaces, black women are often immediately placed at a disadvantage simply because of the color of their skin. Behavior that may be considered normal in women from white backgrounds is often looked down upon in black female employees.
For example, a black woman who is assertive in the workplace will often be seen as excessively demanding. Conversely, a black woman who does not assert herself will often be seen as lacking confidence or leadership qualities.
We have seen that Black women are often tested in ways that seek to devalue their roles, their existence and in some cases even try to silence their voice and experience. We are often having to “Reclaim Our Time” just as Congresswoman Auntie Maxine Waters did. Or having to literally demand our respect in getting heard, like Vice Presidential Kamala Harris had to do in the debate with her famed phrase “Excuse me, I’m speaking. Today, we are reclaiming our voices, dignity and our purpose.
After serving as the nation’s first Black First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama revealed her treatment as the First African-American First Lady of the United States and the harsh criticism and venom she faced. She said, “Knowing that after eight years of working really hard for this country, there are still people who won’t see me for what I am because of my skin color.”
Maya Angelou once said this about black women “There is a kind of strength that is almost frightening in black women. It’s as if a steel rod runs right through the head down to the feet”.
Apparently Their Mistakes Matter More
Another issue in the workplace is related to the fact that the slightest mistakes of black women are often seen as intolerable to white employers. When a white female employee makes a mistake, employers are more likely to see the error as a one-off problem that can be dealt with in later training or job performance reviews.
However, when a black woman makes a mistake in the workplace, employers tend to see the mistake as stemming from a wider character flaw. This places Black female employees in a no-win situation: They must be perfect in their job performance or risk a manager’s ire. The slightest imperfections can mar the performance reports of Black female employees; these reports can hold back even the most talented black leaders later in their careers.
Even if a Black female employee manages to avoid making any obvious mistakes in the workplace, she will likely still have to deal with her managers and coworkers’ unconscious biases. Even if managers and coworkers do not intend to be racist, they may subconsciously hold distorted beliefs rooted in racist thinking patterns.
Even when employers and coworkers attempt to treat black employees well, they may simply treat black employees differently or as not a “real” part of the in-group. Without proper culture competency bias training, employers can easily succumb to what many may deem is normal, when it is in fact wrong. Despite their essential similarities, white employers may see black employees as being fundamentally different from white employees. That kind of “othering” can be a deeply alienating experience for any person to go through. Especially for Black women, this kind of treatment can be devastating and even career-ending.