#BlackGirlMagic. #BlackGirlsRock. #BlackExcellence.
These hashtags have been trending heavily in social media over the past few months due to the incredible strides that people of color, especially women, have been making in music, movies, sports, etc. Though African-Americans have been very successful in the arts and entertainment recently (Nielsen Music reported last month that hip-hop and R&B are the dominant musical genre in the U.S. for the first time ever—#WINNING), one area that we struggle to make strides in is in Corporate America. Since the inception of the Fortune 500, there have only been 15 African-American CEOs, and only one of them have been a woman (Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, who recently stepped down in January 2017). Of the 16.2 million management positions reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 6.7 percent of them are held by African-Americans (a fraction of which are African-American women), though we make up twice that amount of the U.S. population.
So what is the catalyst behind why so many people of color, especially women, have a hard time climbing the corporate ladder? Well, it’s not for lack of work ethic or lack of leadership ability, as the number of black-women owned businesses have tripled since 1997, making black women the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States. Some feel the reason for the barrier that black women face climbing the corporate ladder is due to lack of mentors/executive sponsors to advocate on their behalf, as well as the view that some of the achievements that black women make in the workplace go unnoticed.
Often times black women don’t feel comfortable enough to speak up or “toot their own horn” out of fear of being labeled as being afflicted with ABWS, also known as “Angry Black Woman Syndrome.” Many black women who have worked in a professional setting have had to deal with being labeled “hostile” when they have disagreed with something in a meeting, or have been labeled “intimidating” when being assertive in their communication. In the past, the advice black women have been given to combat ABWS is to be “more agreeable” and to “put your head down and let your work do the talking.” However, this type of behavior tends to be more detrimental than helpful in the long run, as it reinforces the false narrative that something is “wrong” with black women being their true self, and that they must dim their light to get ahead.
Here are some ways that you can diffuse the myth of ABWS, and still stay true to yourself at the same time.
Define Racism vs. Unconscious Bias (for others as well as yourself)
If the 2016 election has taught us nothing else, it has taught us to (a) NEVER underestimate your opponent, and (b) racism is still alive and kicking. Though the race relations in this country seem to be at a fever pitch, every seemingly negative comment or action taken against a person of color is not always rooted in racism. It may actually be due to ignorance (i.e. literally not knowing any better) or it may be due to unconscious (or implicit) bias.
Unconscious bias is defined as bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgements of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. In other words, unconscious bias is caused by stereotypes (for reference, think back to how people were hypersensitive when they would see a Muslim or someone of middle-eastern decent right after 9/11). Though unconscious bias is still wrong, it typically doesn’t come from a place of malice or hatred like racism. It can be corrected by bringing to light the fact that unconscious bias exists and is occurring in the workplace (many people don’t even realize that they are partaking in the practice), and educating people on the group that they have an unconscious bias about. Remember, knowledge is power.
Start an Employee Resource Group
Diversity is quickly becoming the name of the game in Corporate America. Employers are realizing that with minorities projected to be the majority in the United States by 2044, they need to start building and maintaining a diverse and inclusive workplace environment if they want to attract and retain top talent in the years to come. One way employers are doing this is by leveraging Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which are voluntary, employee-led groups made up of individuals who join together based on common interests, backgrounds or demographic factors such as gender, race or ethnicity.
Some of the more common ERGs that have been established in some organizations have been around African-Americans, Latinos, LGBT and Working Moms, however you can create an ERG based on a myriad of interests, such as musical taste or hobbies. A great way to combat ABWS at work is to start an Employee Resource Group for African-American Women in the workplace. Not only will this be a place for you to get together and collaborate with other women who look like you and have similar background as you, but this will allow you to possibly create trainings/presentation to show to the rest of the organization around topics that you think are important to your group and that will help you succeed in the workplace.
Starting an Employee Resource Group will also show senior management that you are a leader, you take initiative and you are committed to the goal of creating a more diverse organization, all of which you can utilize as “receipts” when it’s performance review time and you’re building your case for a raise or promotion.
Don’t Segregate Yourself
I love my black people, but we tend to segregate ourselves when two or more of us are together, even though our ancestors fought SO hard to make segregation a non-factor. Yes, it may feel more comfortable to be around people who look like you, however, we all share commonalities that transcend color.
You may be surprised to find out that your white co-worker has a more extensive Jay-Z album collection than you do, or the Asian woman in the marketing department may have watched ALL of the Real Housewives franchises and can spill tea and throw shade with the best of them. However, you’ll never know unless you foster relationships and get to know your co-workers on a more personal level. This doesn’t mean telling them all of your business, but instead of eating lunch at your desk, try to sit and eat lunch in the cafeteria with a mixed group of your colleagues. You’ll be surprised how much you find yourself contributing to the conversation.
Be Your Authentic Self
If you have a job within an organization, that means you went through the interview process, you were deemed qualified enough for the role and your personality shined through enough for you to beat out the hundreds of other applicants that applied for that same role. You put your best self forward and it worked for you. So why would you deviate from that?
Often times we find ourselves adjusting ourselves to make others comfortable. Whenever you go against the grain and the true essence of what you are, nothing good will come from it. So no, don’t put your head down and be quiet. Don’t NOT voice your opinion because you’re afraid of how it may come off. Be the same, amazing, authentic person you were when you landed that job. Just like in a relationship, if you can’t be valued in a space without dimming your light, then it’s time to occupy another space. If you have to alter who your true self is in order to get along in the workplace, then you will NEVER move up in that organization, because you can only play the role of someone else but for so long. Don’t be afraid to leave a place where you feel you are no longer being valued. When you are living and working as your true, authentic self, the greatness that is within you will shine bright enough to attract your next great opportunity.