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Most leadership books urge women to advocate for ourselves. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s book, Confidence Code, for example, urged women not to wait for perfection before putting forth a new idea, and not to wait until yearly reviews to request a salary increase. They wagered that a contributing factor to the wage gap was women not asking or not asking as frequently for wage increases. While this is great advice, their book and many other leadership books do not talk about the penalty that could be levied against Black women when we do speak up and make our preferences, desires and wants known.

The truth of the matter is that Black women who ask for what they want and need, are not always greeted with celebration or applause. Our requests are analyzed through the lens of race, gender, class and a host of other factors. Consequently, what may be a reasonable request for a white woman or a non-Black person of color can be considered inappropriate when posited by a Black woman. The penalties we experience for asking for what we want can be anything from being labeled “difficult,” “uppity,” “presumptuous,” or “arrogant,” or facing snide remarks, gaslighting or retaliation.

Asking for what one wants or needs could look like pushing a doctor to do one more round of testing when a person suspects something is off in their body. It could look like asking for a modified work schedule, one that meets current life and family needs. Perhaps it is advocating for something a child needs at school. Other examples include advocating for diversity in the workplace, asking for a raise or making a request for how you want other people to treat you. All these very necessary requests can be met with backlash for Black women.

Time and again, research has proven that racial diversity, diversity of perspective, diversity of experience and background benefits organizations and companies. Most people, most leaders, claim to value it, right? Unfortunately, Black women and people of color can be penalized for championing it.

Researchers David R. Hekman, Stefanie K. Johnson, Maw-Der Foo  and Wei Yang conducted a research study on diversity-valuing behaviors — “e.g., whether they respected cultural, religious, gender and racial differences, valued working with a diverse group of people, and felt comfortable managing people from different racial or cultural backgrounds. This research team found that women and nonwhite executives who were reported as frequently engaging in diversity-valuing behaviors were rated much worse by their bosses, in terms of competence and performance ratings, than their female and nonwhite counterparts who did not actively promote balance.” Further, white and male executives do not receive career benefits for pushing diversity, and nonwhite and female executives are punished for doing so [pushing diversity]. This study, which included 350 executives was published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2016.

A similar dynamic exists when it comes to salaries. When Black women, have the temerity and confidence to ask for increased wages and better benefits, they can face penalties for doing so. Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the director of the Women and Power program, has studied gender effects on negotiation through laboratory studies, case studies, and extensive interviews with executives and employees in diverse fields. In a story for the New Yorker, reporter Maria Konnikova noted that Bowles has “repeatedly found evidence that our implicit gender perceptions mean that the advice that women stand up for themselves and assert their position strongly in negotiations may not have the intended effect. It may even backfire.” “In four studies, Bowles and collaborators from Carnegie Mellon found that “people penalized women who initiated negotiations for higher compensation more than they did men.” 

Black women have long been confronted with the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype. Navigating this stereotype requires making calculated decisions around how one raises dissent, how one responds to aggression, how one navigates attacks or perceived attacks. Even when a Black woman has justifiable reasons for anger, for concern, the “Angry Black Woman” troupe can cause others to focus on our expression versus the underlying problem or message.

Internally, it can cause Black women to second-guess ourselves, become passive or fearful. I’m convinced that America wants passive, toe the line women, in general, and Black women, in particular: women who are content to live in the shadows of others and willing to dispense with any notion of what we rightfully deserve or just want. I think our nation wants Black women who will discard any notion of fairness and justice in the workplace or in life. When Black women have the audacity to attempt to show up, ask up and live up to their highest vision for themselves, doing so may rankle the people around us. We are to proceed anyway. Society’s problem is not our problem.

If you are someone who can ask for what you want or need, without regard to what others think, I applaud you. Doing so requires a level of confidence, assertiveness and a belief that it is OK to take up space. If you are someone who struggles in this area, consider thinking of yourself as the protector of yourself. As protector, it is your responsibility to self-advocate. Name the side of you that serves as a protector and enlist that persona to boldly and authentically request what is needed.

In case it is not apparent, what I am describing is bigger than knowing how to ask or asking nicely. “Niceness” is a construct that was created to uphold privilege and power. Niceness is also subjective and interpreted through the lens of one’s background and culture. You can be polite as Mother Teresa, but if a person has a problem with your mere existence, they will find a way to critique or condemn your requests.

I offer this not to prevent you from asking for what you want and need. I am sharing this so if you’re aren’t met with a welcome mat, you will persist nonetheless. Importantly, Black women should view every piece of advice from a racial and gender lens, then make a plan that takes race, gender and gender identity into account.


Jennifer R. Farmer is the founder of Spotlight PR LLC and the author of 'First and Only: A Black Woman’s Guide to Thriving at Work and in Life'.