Cathy Peters worked as a communications assistant for an international luxury hotel brand in 2016. At the time, President Donald Trump was on the campaign trail and Colin Kaepernick was receiving backlash for kneeling during the national anthem. “I was in personal turmoil all the time and couldn’t talk about it at work,” she says. She was the only Black woman in her office, and already, she’d dealt with microaggressions that made her feel excluded, such as gaslighting and having her accomplishments ignored.
“Out of the three of [people in my department], I was the only person in my level position being micromanaged, although it was evident that I was the only one of us performing above expectations, and for that reason, I was asked to do everything even when it wasn’t my responsibility,” she says.
The way she wore her hair also prompted uncomfortable conversations and made her feel like she was on display in the office.“I spent a lot of time talking about what my hair looks like outside of the bun,” Peters says. She eventually left her job because she didn’t feel like she belonged. “I felt like I was a target for harassment, and nobody was on my side. I felt like a part of myself had to die in order to survive because the white women there made me feel like an outsider.”
Peters silently stomaching microaggressions for so long, and eventually leaving her role because of them, is familiar to many women, as is the lack of belonging she experienced as “the only” on her team. But it’s especially familiar to Black women, who face a double whammy of gender and racial microaggressions and discrimination, and are more likely to experience the “quit and stay” phenomenon, wherein an employee feels alienated and ignored and is mentally checked out, but stays in her role anyway because of other contributing factors. Those factors being: the fear of negative stereotypes, not having better or the right career opportunities available, or needing to provide for family members. (Seventy-one percent of Black women have caregiving responsibilities, whether children or elders, compared to 45 percent of white women.)
In other words, even in environments that are toxic and exclusionary, Black women tend to weather the microaggressions as long as they possibly can, regardless of how going into work every day makes them feel, because they often have more at stake if they leave. In fact, a 2019 survey found that while 68 percent of Americans say microaggressions in the workplace are a serious problem, only 30 percent of Black women said they would consider leaving their job if they were addressed in an unprofessional way and 27 percent said comments about their race would make them head for the door.
Latesha Byrd, a career and business coach, says she tells her clients to find an exit strategy ASAP if they’ve exhausted traditional conflict-management avenues. “There's only so much that employees can deal with when it comes to this behavior,” she says. “If they have responded by going to HR and management, and it does not change anything, this type of toxic behavior after dealing with it on an ongoing basis, can negatively impact employee performance and even lead to mental health issues. A toxic workplace is unsafe.”
Recognizing the experience of ‘the only’
It’s hard to pinpoint when a work environment crosses the line—and when it is continuously doing so—if you’re used to being the only Black person in the room.
Joy Randolph, a high performance executive coach, says she grew up in an all-white neighborhood in the United Kingdom. For that reason, she never realized she didn’t feel like she belonged. Being “the only,” whether in school or on the job, was her “normal.”
She didn’t realize anything was wrong in her workplace until one manager made her feel like she too was a “servant” rather than an employee. “I was working as a mid-level consultant and the new director was a blonde, tall, beautiful Swedish woman,” she says. “We worked together on an internationally renowned beauty brand.”
The woman continued making remarks about ethnicities regarding beauty campaigns, but Randolph assumed she didn’t understand the experience of being a Black woman. That is, until their dynamic became increasingly toxic. “Because of her role, it was appropriate for her to delegate tasks to me, but the issues arose when she would give me feedback and make unprofessional requests,” Randolph says. “For example, she gave me a specific brief for how to write our findings for our beauty client. I wrote and created exactly what she asked me to,” but the director said it wasn’t correct and told her to work overnight to create a new presentation, a feat that would normally take three days to complete.
When Randolph asked her manager about checking in during the rewrite, “She said, ‘I don’t work in the evening. You work in the evenings, I have a child and a personal life. So you do the work tonight. I expect it first thing on my desk in the morning.’
The next day, the director passed the presentation off as her own without giving Randolph any credit, and this was not a singular event. As Randolph’s tenure at the company continued, she found she was often talked over or cut off when speaking to clients. Eventually, her anxiety skyrocketed, and she had a nervous breakdown. It had been a slow, painful burn.
Belonging as a race issue
Despite efforts to make workplaces more inclusive for all, women do not experience inclusion equally. A study from Great Place to Work found that although feeling included at work improves as one climbs the managerial ladder, that sense of belonging still exists at unequal rates for Black and white women. About 75 percent of Black women feel the least included at every level of management while white women feel over 90 percent included.
Teronda Seymore, a former investment analyst turned writer, says she realized her own ostracization gradually as well. Previously, she worked at a boutique financial services company outside Washington, D.C. “I was the fourth employee alongside a white woman and two white men,” she says. “I was ecstatic to start this position because I would’ve had the opportunity to finally use my finance degree in an area that I was extremely interested in. The only problem was I didn’t analyze anything. Not one investment. The other investment analyst did, but I was given a bunch of administrative and miscellaneous tasks as if that were all I was capable of. I was even driving my own car to Germantown, Maryland, to drop off and retrieve company mail from the post office 11 miles away.
“The most demeaning request for me was having to refill a plastic jug with jumbo pretzel sticks and glancing at my younger, inexperienced, white coworker who was eagerly clickety-clacking on his keyboard, crunching some numbers. I felt like I was the housekeeper of the company.”
Seymore discovered she was making $8,000 less than another investment analyst who had just graduated from college, whereas she had several years of experience in the industry on her resume. That, combined with how tokenized Seymour felt, pushed her out.
How company cultures can ensure belonging
Interestingly, none of the companies Peters, Randolph, or Seymour worked for had diversity measures in place, which Tameka Green, director of the U.S. Office of Diversity & Inclusion at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), says is a problem.
Green says there are many ways companies can make sure all employees feel like they belong, and that starts by making diversity a top business priority and doing whatever it takes to retain talent, to continue to make them feel valued and important, long after they are hired.
Seymour’s experience corroborates this advice. It wasn’t enough to just be hired by her employer as the first Black person on the team. She says if her employer had allowed her to do her job, she would have felt like a contributing member, and that having other minorities on the staff and executive levels would have made her feel more comfortable, too. She never felt like she belonged in the culture or like her skills were being utilized.
Even now, Randolph doesn’t attribute the behavior of her boss strictly to race, but she believes it was bullying that was at the core of the way she was treated. That’s a cultural factor that, like microaggressions, can be addressed with a shift toward empathy and transparency.
“Create a culture of openness, honesty, and vulnerability in order to have the tough conversations,” Green says. “Encourage employees to speak up and out when they witness biased behaviors like microaggressions in the workplace and institute a strict [zero] tolerance policy.”
About our sources
Latesha Byrd is the CEO and founder of Byrd Career Consulting, a talent development consulting agency serving organizations and top talent at the intersection of career empowerment, diversity, equity and inclusion and leadership development. She’s also the Google Digital Coach for North Carolina in partnership with Grow With Google. Her advice has been featured in Forbes, Black Enterprise, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Money magazine, and more.
Tameka Green is the director of the U.S. Office of Diversity & Inclusion at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). A D&I professional with over 12 years of experience in her field, she previously served as the director of diversity and inclusion for Weber Shandwick.