As an African American woman executive writing this article, I struggled with how to articulate the unique obstacles faced by women of color in the workplace and appropriately stressing the diversity of backgrounds represented by this same group. However, two themes came to mind immediately that I believe can lend insights to the topic: “Assumptions” and “Benefit of the doubt”.
On the subject of “assumptions”, let me begin. An increasing number of women of color enter the ranks of the workplace daily. Some are still met with negative stereotypes that hinder their acceptance as co-workers and bosses. Stereotypes are basically assumptions that are easy to digest—kind of like fast food—that allow one to not think, but rather to categorize and cram an individual into a box of oversimplified ideas that rarely fit any actual person.
The reality is that women of color like everyone else come from a multitude of backgrounds. Some are from third or fourth generation college educated families. Many are first and second generation United States citizens who also hail from the Caribbean, Africa and other parts of the world. Yes, some are born with wealth and are legacy kids. But some are also the first from their families to graduate college. Some live in your neighborhood, some reside in communities you may have purposely never encountered. But not everyone is an affirmative action baby. That assumption alone can wrap itself around the dodgy belief that someone has reached a goal without merit and, in some circumstances, may have figuratively elbowed you out of a position that you desired.
Like everyone else, women of color need to be judged on their own intrinsic qualities. Actively creating a dialogue centering on the accumulated professional and personal experience of all your co-workers takes some effort but is the heart of an inclusive workplace. Also keep in mind that some individuals are very good at their jobs, some are not. That’s equal opportunity.
If you’re in the position to do so, why not consider mentoring a woman of color or, better yet, if a woman is senior to you, asking a woman of color to mentor you. The learning would be invaluable in both instances. There is a documented lack of mentoring of women of color and African American middle managers across corporate America. It is one of the noticeable gaps that still remain in the career tracks of women of color and a significant obstacle to ascending to executive ranks.
Despite similar challenges faced by women in general in the workplace, the bottom line is that mentors’ choice of mentees often reflects their ability to “see themselves” in their protégé. As a mentor your guidance and understanding of what works within your company, unspoken networks of power and knowledge of what plays well will help a newcomer better adapt to the variations, nuances and subtleties that are an embedded part of different corporate cultures. And, of course, a woman of color as your mentor is the flip side of the coin.
Having had to navigate two worlds to achieve their success, some women of color have developed a fine-tuned interpersonal style that can put anyone at immediate ease. You will often find their candor refreshing, surprising or a style new to some corporate cultures. This is where some mentoring may help the individual to modify their style to the environment so that the refreshing part remains, but the surprising part takes a back seat except when appropriate.
Now to the subject of “benefit of the doubt”: Most people have had the experience of being misjudged in some situation. To a certain extent that’s what stereotypes do. They misjudge the individual and attach pre-defined group characteristics to the person that seldom match. Taking a step back once you understand your thought process is drifting in this direction and not prejudging the individual may turn into a rewarding, unexpected alliance.
Probably the best advice I can offer if you are interested in truly understanding and leveraging the diversity of insights offered by women of color and any co-workers who come from a significantly different background is to try to expand your network of personal friends to include them – in an authentic manner of course!
A frequently shared question asked among people of color is “how come when people of color are asked how many white friends they have, the answer is typically 4 or more but when the question is posed to white executives the most common answer is one?” There is no doubt that the inclusiveness of your social circle reflects back on your comfort on the professional side.
Written for w2wlink by Margaret Young.