Being a woman of color at work often means being the only one, if not one of the only ones, in the room. It also means that the rules of success are somewhat different than they are for others.
According to this report by AAUW, “most minority groups and women” are under-represented, be it in the private or public sector. While Black women account for only 8% of the private sector workforce and 1.5% of leadership, Hispanic women make up for 6% of the workforce and 1.3% of leadership.
As a woman of color in the corporate world, I’ve also had to learn that the rules for women of color at work are different. There are so few of us in the corporate trenches, as we’re also faced with the double bias of being women and of a different race. While speaking up and raising our voices may be encouraged for everyone else, they may be interpreted differently for women of color. Hence the “angry black woman” and other stereotypes of the same kind.
From my experience and learning from so many other women of color in the corporate world, here are 10 rules for success you can start applying today:
Stop being afraid of being yourself.
Most people in the corporate world wear a mask. It’s just a fact. However, for women of color at work, wearing a mask has many times been a necessity. According to studies by the Center for Women Policy, 21% of women of color do not think they can be themselves at work. Another 28 to 44% believe they must downplay their ethnicity to increase their chances of success at work.
While this is still the reality in many, if not most, corporate environments, authenticity is still the best way to change the dialogue about women of color at work. The more we hide behind our corporate masks, the less we can bring focus on the actual issues faced by women of color at work.
[Related: 3 Ways Women of Color Can Get Ahead in Tech]
Get used to being uncomfortable.
Being a woman of color at work rhymes with being uncomfortable. Not only are there very few other women of color in the room, but our lack of representation can also make it challenging for others to understand the struggles we may face.
However, being uncomfortable is also an advantage. The more uncomfortable you are, the more prepared you tend to be. Getting used to uncomfortable and challenging environments is also the key to being innovative and a high performer.
Find your sweet spot.
There are many challenges associated with being a woman of color in a corporate environment. Yet they shouldn’t prevent you from excelling and being the best you can be. Finding your sweet spot, that overlap between your skills, interests and opportunities, is crucial to achieving success, especially as woman of color at work.
The reality is very often, you may have to work harder at convincing others of your competence and professionalism. Hitting on your key kills and interests will give you that competitive edge you’ll need to attract the right opportunities.
Challenge yourself to speak up.
Speaking up as a woman of color at work can be double-edged sword. On one hand, you may be labeled as “too assertive” or downright “angry”. On the other hand, not raising your voice may make you seem incompetent or disinterested.
Whatever bias you may have to confront, I’ve found that the best answer, more often than not, is to speak up. You have way too much knowledge, insight and experience not to share it to empower others and increase your team and company’s efficiency.
Keep showing up.
As a woman of color in the corporate world, there were many times when I was tempted to stop showing up. For many of us, the challenges can be so overwhelming that we may think of giving up, stopping to volunteer or participate, or even flat-out resign.
Keep showing up, persevering and demonstrating your best efforts. While your work may go unnoticed at times, it’s important to consistently show up and bring your best contribution to the table.
Share your experience.
During my interview with Forbes Books, one of the questions that was asked of me by Gregg Stebben had me thinking about how we share our experiences as women of color at work. The question was: “What would you want someone like me (a white man) to know about women of color’s experience at work?”
His question made me realize that although we may face numerous challenges at work, we rarely share our experiences to help others understand us better. The reality is, there is always going to be a certain level of unconscious bias embedded in people. It’s up to us to change the norm by changing others’ understanding of who we are and what we experience.
Whether you create a group for women of color at work, educate your co-workers and peers, or mentor a fellow woman, use your experience to empower others and create a positive environment.
Mentor another woman of color.
I wish I had another woman of color tell me about what to expect as a woman of color in the corporate world. Someone who would have gone through similar experiences, and would prepare or advise me on the best ways to handle certain situations and still thrive at work.
In general, women need more mentors in the workplace. While no one woman’s experience is the same as the next, there are similar themes in the challenges we face. As women in general, and women of color in particular, it’s our responsibility to mentor one another. It’s another way to keep that door of opportunity open for those coming behind us, and to better our work environments with each generation of women leaders.
[Related: The Reciprocal Value of Mentorship]
Don’t just sit at the table, move to the front of the room.
Yes, there are many more women of color who are sitting at the table. Many of us are even leading the conversation. Yet, there are still too many of us who are either not in the room, or sitting somewhere in the dark, unseen, unappreciated and barely accounted for.
When you get the opportunity to enter the room, don’t just sit at that table. It’s not enough. Move to the front row, at the top of the table, and dare to assert yourself as the leader that you are. It’s a difficult first step, especially when you may be the only one in the room, yet one that may spell a world of difference for yours and others’ success.
Let your behavior dispel stereotypes.
Stereotypes, such as the “angry black woman”, and other pre-conceived (and generally false) ideas about women of color, may not disappear any time soon. However, the most effective way to dispel them, and prove some of the myths and beliefs around women of color wrong, is through consistent, positive behavior.
While I was tempted to directly confront certain stereotypes in the course of my career, I came to understand that positive action is most effective.
Be open to change!
Progress and growth require change. As women of color at work, our career paths may not always be predictable, for a host of obvious (and some not so obvious) reasons. To circumvent many of the barriers standing in the way of women’s leadership and advancement, we must learn to welcome and embrace change.
Whether that means saying yes to non-traditional opportunities, embarking on different career paths, or knowing when to forego comfort for growth, be open to change!
What other success rules can you share about being a woman of color in the corporate world?
Solange Lopes is an author, CPA and writer/blogger. She blogs about career and lifestyle for professional women in her blog The Corporate Sister. She’s passionate about writing and women’s issues.