Imagine a world where only about 10% of BIPOC women make up senior or leadership roles.
Trick hypothetical! That’s the real world! The sad fact is, there’s a lack of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) individuals in senior or leadership roles across a variety of industries (and women make a small fraction of it).
Now, it’s not that we’re not striving for these roles. In fact, McKinsey and Leanin.org report more than half of Black, Latinx and Asian women want to be promoted. But in reality, “for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some [BIPOC] women,” according to the study. While we’re eager to reach for these opportunities of leadership, there are many factors preventing and discouraging us from moving up in our companies.
These obstacles are already placed based on gender, so just imagine having to also jump huddles based on gender and race. Whether it’s a lack of network opportunities, mentors or mental health support, we have to work twice as hard to be seen or heard. Oh, and don’t forget the mix of racial bias and microaggressions some BIPOC women have to face on a daily basis. So, what do we do?
“BIPOC women need to advocate for themselves because only we know what it is to be a BIPOC woman,” said Deepa Purushothaman, co-founder of nFormation and author of the upcoming book, Inclusion Delusion. “We have such an interesting perspective from having to navigate through a system that doesn’t always see us. I believe that we are the change.”
Here are six ways you can advocate for yourself in the workplace, because you deserve a seat at the table.
1. Search for a mentor or sponsor
While a 2020 study shows that BIPOC women are more likely to not get the support they need from their managers or have a tougher time securing a mentor or sponsor, that doesn’t mean it's completely impossible.
Finding a mentor or sponsor is a starting point for advocating for yourself. A mentor can be the go-to person for advice and feedback before making a decision or scheduling time with leadership. However, a sponsor can do that plus be a key person (most likely a manager or senior leader) to get you to the next level in your career.
Managers, fellow alumni or even a friend can fill this role. It’s even more inspiring to find someone that looks like you. Look for someone who has made an impact in your life (or has your aspirational career), who’s trust-worthy and overall can provide guidance on ways to promote yourself.
2. Create a support system
In addition to finding your go-to confidant, create a support system that can hold you accountable and boost you up through your endeavors. Start connecting with people at work or leaning on family and friends, and be sure to give back by being just as supportive for them.
After all, says Purushothaman, “we need to have strong self care practices and also find new ways to support each other. We need safe places where we can share the toll of our burdens and we need brave spaces where we can decide what comes next.”
Another way to seek a support system is by joining an association or program catered to helping BIPOC professionals. Such places are dedicated to helping this community with resources, encouragement and opportunities to grow. A few to consider:
- nFormation - A safe space to help BIPOC women grow and find new ways to lead. They have discussion forums, virtual events and training programs to connect with others and discover your own path—professionally and personally.
- Sisters in Media - An organization that focuses on uplifting and highlighting women of color in media. They offer opportunities and host networking events to connect with other media professionals.
- Women of Color in Communications (ColorComm) - A community filled with professionals across communications, media, marketing and advertising industries.
- We All Grow Latina - An online community for Latinx creatives and entrepreneurs featuring masterclasses and events.
3. Take Initiative at Your Own Company
Look for any company-based groups or volunteer at events. Alternately, find an area of the business that needs help or change. How about developing a BIPOC women-based discussion group or softball league? Chances are, you’re not the only one craving it. Rha Goddess, co-founder of nFormation and author of The Calling, points out that letting BIPOC women be a part of these spaces enables them to feel included, acknowledged and motivated to be a part of the workplace outside their day-to-day responsibilities.
If your company already has such organizations, reach out to the person in charge and ask them how you can get more involved. If they don’t, talk to your manager or someone in senior leadership about starting one. Be prepared to answer questions surrounding your proposal, including what type of budget it would take to get it going. It also could be useful to show examples of similar groups or events at other companies.
4. Don’t be afraid to use your voice
Studies have shown that BIPOC women feel like they can’t be their complete selves at work. Some experience isolation, loneliness and/or feel like an “other” (especially if they’re the only BIPOC woman in the company). In order to avoid microaggressive behavior or biases, we tend to close ourselves off (or resort to codeswitching to feel safer). But if we do speak up, there’s often the fear that we’re asking for too much or will be viewed as incapable of doing our job.
So how do you make your voice heard? Goddess recommends setting clear boundaries with your manager (“Can we meet once a month to talk about my performance?” or “I would like to create a work/life balance that involves turning off emails after 5pm”) and real transparency in terms of your concerns (“These concerns have been hurting my performance” or “I feel this way because xyz”). Start with what’s been working (“I love collaborating with the development team” or “I appreciate the special projects I’ve been able to do”) and then highlight areas that still need improvement (“My workload is making it hard to have work/life balance,” “I don’t feel included in the meetings,” or “I would love more access to senior leadership.”) It might be uncomfortable, but, in the end, it's the only way to make sure you're getting what you need.
5. Identify your strengths, goals and desires
You have so much time in the world to reflect on your mistakes and failures, but what about your wins? Take a moment to write down your accomplishments, strengths and goals. Goddess also recommends keeping a record of your needs and wants at the workplace. “BIPOC women should also take a clear inventory of all of the ways they are currently contributing right now and ensure that those contributions are being recognized and honored. If they are not, they should have forthright conversations about those disconnects with their leadership with requests for the necessary changes,” she says.
6. Acknowledge discriminatory behavior and bias
According to the McKinsey and Leanin.org study, 42% of Black women feel uncomfortable sharing their thoughts about racial injustice, while 22% can’t talk about how it impacts them personally. While it can be difficult, you have to recognize that discrimination and bias of any kind shouldn’t be tolerated. You shouldn’t have to deal with microaggressions and blatant racism in the workplace, and it’s also not your job to be the token “educator.”
If you see signs of discrimination or bias, there are few ways to address them. First, assess the situation. Microaggressions can be so subtle that sometimes you just need to do a double take before deciding what to do. Next, think about if it’s worth reaching out to the person directly who performed the behavior. After all, while it’s certainly not your job to educate someone, it doesn’t hurt to open up a dialogue that could improve your working relationship in the future. Set up a meeting to discuss what happened and why you felt offended by their words or actions. Finally, if speaking directly isn’t an option (or if you’ve tried and found resistance), consider documenting the behavior and reporting it. Talk to a manager or HR representative who will guide you on next steps and, if necessary, legal action. Remember, at the end of the day, the workplace shouldn’t be a toxic environment.