Growing up, whilst my parents, like many other black parents told me “as a black woman you have to work twice as hard”, they also told me that if I was so unapologetically my authentic self, people would have no choice but to adapt themselves to fit into MY world. So when I first stepped into the corporate world via numerous internships across European and US investment banks, starting from the assessment centre (before I even secured an offer), I did me. Whilst most people used their 5-minute presentations to highlight this other piece of work experience they had done (but didn’t fit into their 1 page CV), I would Rap / perform spoken word about a particular topic, two stepping, getting the HR person and the other participants to clap the beat for me. Looking back now it was sooo cringe, BUT everyone (especially the recruitment team) loved it. This was not me trying to be creative or funny, but those that know me, would tell you that’s how I am.
When I started working full time, I brought my Caribbean food to work (in an old ice cream or butter container) with my hot pepper sauce, shared my love for grime, dancehall and hip hop with my manager, and spoke to my colleagues about my outside of work interests (trying to get on radio and mentoring. Before I knew it, my colleagues had found a Caribbean restaurant locally and once a week we all started to go there. The most senior manager in my team would put me onto some old school grime and hip-hop stuff that I hadn’t heard before. One of my colleagues said he was inspired by my efforts to try radio and decided to have a go himself (he had always been told he had a great radio voice but didn’t really know whether to pursue it). My parent’s words about being unapologetically myself rung true. I was being myself and here my colleagues were adapting to me.
I make it sound really easy right? But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Comments on my ever-changing hairstyle can become annoying, and the assumption that I fancy the only other black guy in my team (one time I did have this spiceee work colleague but no, I didn’t fancy him). Sometimes it can feel like I’m the spokesperson for all things ‘black’, like I’m the representative for black people everywhere. I find that everyone is relatively comfortable talking about black people with regards to popular culture, but when innocent black men are being killed left, right and centre, everyone goes silent. I also think that when you’re part of these workplace future leaders / mentorship initiatives for black employees only, it can be quite difficult to get your colleagues to understand the need for them. When you have to attend sessions in the day and explain that it’s for the black future leader’s initiative, I can tell my colleagues think that I’m getting these extra privileges, when this couldn’t be further from the truth. Envisioning yourself as a future leader in the firm (if that’s your goal) can feel almost impossible when you look at organisations leadership team and there is no one that resembles yourself. I’d also say that sometimes, the negative perception of senior black people helping their own harms us at the beginning of our careers who so desperately need the advice and guidance.
Do I feel that I have to work twice as hard and be twice as good? That’s tough to answer because whilst working my butt off, I’m not asking myself if its’ twice as hard as my white counterparts, I’m just working hard because its all I’ve ever known. However, I do feel I must shout twice as much about my work. Within African and Caribbean cultures, whilst we are encouraged to be proud of our achievements, this does not mean we must tell the whole world. However, at work, me and ‘Jane’ could be doing the exact same work, but my efforts will go totally unnoticed if I don’t shout about it.
Being a black woman in the workplace has its ups and downs. There are very few of us and despite many of our accomplishments, we still are very much underestimated. Black women on a daily basis have to work twice as hard and perform to a high standard whilst silently internalising the hurt felt from microaggressions and other forms of discrimination. Men named David, Dave, and Stephen are the most popular names of FTSE 100 CEOs (1) and there are currently no black females CEOs or CFOs in the FTSE 100. Ursula Burns is the first black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Xerox) yet when she stepped down 2016 there have been no black female CEOs in the Fortune 500 since. (2)
Whilst it sounds rather bleak, I don’t think that as black women this should deter us. In the workplace, let’s try to find, support and motivate one another, share opportunities, key sources of information and be a shoulder to cry on when times get tough. If one of us gets ahead, lend a hand to help the rest of us climb up too. As black women, we need to recognise that our sauce is unique and we need to use that to our advantage. The creativity and boldness that I demonstrated in my assessment centres comes everywhere with me now and I know that whenever I step in to a room, there is no one else that has it.
Although time and time again, we are told that being a black woman in the workplace is ‘disadvantageous’, ‘a barrier’, and ‘hinders career progression’, I see being a black woman in the workplace and all the things that make us as black women unique and special, as my superpower. Whenever I receive praise for my work, or exceed some ignorant persons limited expectations, I think to myself – I’m a black woman! Of course, I’ve got this!