A few short weeks ago, I was working on a project that highlighted Black Canadian women who are making the country a better place. Over the course of 10 weeks I talked to nearly 200 women who identified as Black about their experiences — and inevitably, many of those experiences revolved around their profession. Now this is a list that included lawyers, doctors, engineers, CEOs and the like. But whenever the conversation turned to work life, I would hear the same thing:
"I never saw myself represented..."
"I walked into the room and I was the only Black woman..."
"I had to work twice as hard..."
"I'm still trying to prove myself..."
I couldn't understand it. These are women who are intelligent, ambitious, hard working — I mean, the best of the best in qualification and character — and yet, in the eyes of many people who they encountered at work, they were just… Black.
We know the story.
In North America, Black women are statistically underpaid and underemployed, as well as being overrepresented in the precarious job force. While steady pay, benefits and professional bragging rights (if you’re into that kind of thing) might seem like the golden ticket, reality paints a very different picture.
The corporate world has been a place that rejected us, looked down on us, told us how we could and couldn't dress, speak and wear our hair. It has undermined our skill sets while still using our labour. It has loved us on paper and when its time to fulfill quotas, but kept us at arm’s length when it comes to career advancement and leadership opportunities.
So how do you navigate a space that wasn't even designed with you in mind? Here are a few survival tips to help you along the way:
Know your worth
This is more of a mental and emotional exercise in understanding what you bring to the table. Many of us young Black women, especially in the diaspora, have internalized colonial stereotypes that we aren't good enough and that our work is somehow inferior because our skin is more impervious to the harshness of the sun.
You’re never going to get anything done if you don’t even see yourself as belonging in and being worthy of the space you occupy. If you are there, then you belong there and you yourself should believe as much.
Always choose your battles
Knowing which hills are worth dying on, and when to say “y'all can have this” is a delicate balancing act that I myself am still struggling to perfect. For me, part of that balancing act is being prepared to meet people where they are. So while it might make for a great Twitter story, you can’t just go off on every manager that makes an ignorant remark. I’ve always believed that we should be just as willing to call out Peter as we are to educate Paul, and deconstruct whatever it is that might have shaped his understanding of and attitude towards Blackness.
Now don’t get me wrong: it’s not your job to teach every grown, educated adult about the dynamics of systemic oppression or that it’s an invasion of your privacy to try and touch your hair without permission. I say firmly, demand more from the people around you but also be willing to contribute to that process, where you can/feel comfortable doing so.
One thing (most) corporations have is money. Get yours, ma. I love this quote from Reakash Walters, a communications strategist and community organizer based in Edmonton, AB:
“Due in much part to our chattlement history, black women have not been socialized to value our labour. Our present is informed by our past; we are usually offered less and we often settle for less”
Please, for the love of God or whomever you serve, make sure that you are receiving your just compensation for the services you provide. A lot of young people are now married to the idea that doing free work leads to more opportunities (and let’s face it-- a lot of the time, that’s true). But here’s some real tea — setting the precedent that you’re willing to be “that guy” will only hurt you in the long run. You set the tone for what you think your time, energy and intellectual capital are worth, and others will follow. If you don’t even think your time is worth anything, then no one is going to pay you. It’s that simple. Again, your work has value, and you need to eat.
Don’t be afraid to ask
Whether it’s a religious accommodation or a concern about a co-worker, you should never feel that you are a burden or that you must be in dire straits for your concerns to be valid.
Make sure you're even in the right career
If you wake up in the morning wondering why you're doing this to yourself, run sis.
So there you have it; my bag of tricks *for colored girls who have considered going off when the office is enough.* While the stats paint a bleak picture about life in the corporate world for Black women, you have everything in you to push through, reject the stereotypes and flourish!
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