Working While Black and Female

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Pulling your hair out at work? A new study shows you’re not alone.

Sometimes I feel like I could write a book about the drama of working while black and female in the world. If you add to that the fact I also write and make films, and am Nigerian-American, then I could write the unabridged encyclopedia and atlas.

Life imitated art when I worked at a consulting firm, a little while ago, helping a client scale up on equity internally. Most organizations seem (claim?) to understand what it means to focus on equity externally, in terms of programming and CSR initiatives, but what’s interesting is how few turn the lens inward on themselves, looking at their leadership, staff, hiring practices, supply chains, and vendors, among others.

McKinsey and released a new survey, Women in The Workplace, which found that women of color are not only significantly underrepresented, they are far less likely than others to be promoted to manager, more likely to face everyday discrimination, and less likely to receive support from their managers than their white counterparts.

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Almost across the board, black women in the workplace report more microaggressions (McKinsey/

What surprises me, all these many months since I did that research, up through reading the McKinsey/ report, is how many companies seem to be standing still or moving backwards.

Sometimes, I like to imagine race and gender have nothing to do with it and my negative work experiences are a factor of working in startup environments, nonprofits, and growing companies. People are overworked, underpaid, and perpetually frazzled, I think to myself. Certainly that explains the crazy way they’re treating me.

But I had the same problems at much larger companies. That leads me to the conclusion that, structurally, no companies are geared toward respecting, supporting, including, promoting, and paying me equally as a black woman. None. Not any one of them, unless they’re run by black women — and even then we might not have the data to support that conclusion.

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Ah, this is a classic. Comic by Allie Kirkham of Everyday Feminism.

Now I know some of you out there are saying, “But it’s not always about [insert institutional inequity here], you have to take it on a case by case basis,” as though people can somehow step outside of their implicit racial and gender biases, make choices, and step back in them when they want to be shady again. So I’m going to list out my cases here, in no particular order, and let you come to your own conclusions:

  • My former boss, who was known for being short and sometimes rude to people, repeatedly criticized my tone of voice for the first 6 months I worked there. I realized the fact that I was a black woman with opinions immediately made me a target for having “raised my voice” when I literally said anything. This same boss once said, “Why is there no White History Month?” without any shred of humor or irony.
  • A wannabe client, who interviewed me for a position for 5 weeks, after stating that he could tell I was a “great writer” and the main issue was finding a “good fit,” sent me a 6-hour timed writing test. Assuming I could get it done at my pace and send it back in my own time, I was informed that I had to do the test “immediately” and send it back, leading me to wonder where I was supposed to find an entire day to work on an assignment for someone who hadn’t hired me yet. (At least he offered to pay me for my time, which I can’t say many companies do during the interview process.) So I dropped everything and did the test, submitted it, and after not hearing back for several days, emailed to ask what the final decision was. At that point, the wannabe client informed me one of the other candidates had “just decided to take the test,” and I would have to wait another few days, leaving me to wonder why I was pressured for time in the first place.
  • A former client informed me that my contract would not be renewed just days before it ended. The agency through which I’d gotten the job had not done their due diligence, and it was actually an e-mail I sent them flagging the situation that solicited this notice from the client — whom I’d met for a check-in days before, without being informed of anything. Said client then proceeded to ignore me in the office for the remainder of my contract, passing closely by my desk and chatting with colleagues that sat next to me as though I didn’t exist.
  • I can’t count the number of clients who’ve asked me to work for 50% of my rate, while simultaneously paying exorbitant rates to other contractors and vendors. These clients also have a knack for acting like they’re doing me a favor.
  • My former client, replying to my invoice, said, “I do not want to pay for this.” The “this” in question was work he’d asked me to do on my day off. He asked me to reconsider charging for it, out of “pride for my work” or some such thing I took to mean I should volunteer my free time. I reiterated that he’d asked me to do the work on my day off, I’d reminded him of the work, and that I’d be billing for it. He finally agreed to pay, but immediately sent a contract termination notice. When I wished him well, he called me unprofessional.
  • Just last week, I gave a pitch presentation for an arts fellowship in which a guy sat in the back row on his laptop, not making eye contact with me once the whole time. There were 6 committee members in the room, which made it fairly obvious I was being ignored. I angry talked to myself the entire subway ride home.

Now, I haven’t put the worst offenses here, but rather a meaningful cross-section to give a hint as to the level of crazy that has become commonplace out there. In all these cases, most of the leadership was white, older, and male. But I’ve had similar treatment regardless of the gender of my superiors and would also add, paradoxically, that I’ve experienced discrimination from black bosses as well (who happened to be male, though I’ve heard several cases of black women against black women from colleagues).

Australian cartoonist Mark Knight came under fire for a racist depiction of Serena Williams at the US Open. Williams accused umpire Carlos Ramos of sexist treatment.

Historically, I’ve always been the type of person to arrive at racism, sexism, and even ageism last in considering the cause for work drama. As a person with a high internal locus of control, I think about what I may have done wrong, how I could have done better, whether or not my boss had an early or late lunch that day and consequently was suffering from low blood sugar.

But taking into consideration the data and my own anecdotal experience, gathered and compounded yearly, I now see how foolish that thinking is because it places the responsibility for intractable, systemic leadership failures on me — often in companies in which I was the last hired, or working as a contractor or consultant, but mysteriously became “the problem” as soon as I walked into the room.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that my insights help the situation; they only make it worse. In the case of institutional racism and sexism, I’m convinced ignorance is bliss. As I’m already expected to do the unpaid emotional labor of scaling up people’s understanding of race, microaggressions, and why you should never (ever) touch a black woman’s hair without asking first; and the work of keeping my guard up to protect against discrimination; I can’t imagine being expected to shoulder, or fix, a company or nonprofit’s structural bias problems.

But if I had to, it’s a lucky thing that my former consulting firm came up with a nifty list of interventions for our client, the entirety of which I cannot share today for proprietary reasons. But here are a few tips and tools you can use:

  • Scale up your understanding of equity to include not only race and ethnicity, but also gender, nationality, immigration status, sexual orientation, dis/ability, class, education, and language
  • Use this tool-kit for Enhancing Cultural Competence by The Center for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas’
  • Support businesses owned by women, people of color (POCs), and other traditionally underrepresented populations
  • Consult the Diversity and Inclusion Index by Thomson Reuters Eikon
  • Consult the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index that rates workplaces on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender equality
  • Consult the Access and Inclusion Index by the Australian Network on Disability

I could literally go on and on. I say this not to suggest I’m an expert on this, but to reveal how many ways companies who care can tackle these issues if they tried.

I would also add that this phenomenon started when I was a biology major at Stanford (I’m a recovering pre-med, don’t judge me!). I would answer a question in class and it wouldn’t be deemed correct until a male student said the same thing, usually interrupting me mid-word. I’ve heard stories of friends and family members hazed in medical school, residency, postdoctoral research, and tenure track teaching positions (see also: Tenure Denial, Work Climate Spark Growing Bias Complaints By Women and Minority Faculty). It’s really crazy making, and the problem is not unique to the United States.

Despite the (very credible) argument I mounted above, I still sometimes legit think I’m crazy and making this stuff up. So to make myself feel less crazy, I decided to post this essay to find out if anybody else is having similar experiences and find yourself holding it all in, screaming when you get home, and angry talking to yourself for hours to maintain your sanity.

Together, we gon’ be alright. :-)

— — — -

Iquo B. Essien is a writer, director, and business consultant. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, or visit her website.

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#women #business #equality #discrimination #workplace

Writer, creator, and consultant to artists and entrepreneurs. NYU Film & Stanford alumna. Let’s chat:

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