Women In The Workplace: Censor Their Personalities To Be Accepted
Work emails have been on my mind a lot lately. Have you ever superfluously peppered messages with “please let me know” and “do not hesitate”? Then you end up retracting the text only to sit and wonder how you will be perceived otherwise? There was a time when I was consumed by doing things to offset people thinking that I’m angry or too assertive, by the very nature that I am a Black woman. I am either not good enough or I am too much. It has felt like a twisted version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, where instead of environments not fitting me, I simply do not fit their archaic schema.
Where Does This Come From?
In her wildly popular “We Should All Be Feminists” essay and TEDx talk, contemporary Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.’” Society also tells women to be nice, appeasing, and gracious for the opportunities we do have. We are perceived as “bitchy” and problematic when we question the status quo and demand what we believe we deserve.
One aspect of these systematic indoctrinations is the way we speak and/or write emails at work. Women are more likely to ask for permission or use qualifying statements like “just” or “I feel” via email. A 2006 study has even noted that women are more likely to use exclamation points in electronic communications. Many women engage in this kind of communication, expressing some level of disbelief in the accuracy of their own statements, calling into doubt their own expertise. Thankfully, technology consultant Tami Reiss invented Gmail plugin Just Not Sorry which informs you when you use qualifying language. This, however, doesn’t solve the greater challenge of being a woman in male-dominated workspaces.
Why Women In The Workplace Matters
When compared to more pervasive issues like sexual harassment and the gender pay gap, these issues may seem small. However, that does not diminish their effects on our emotional wellbeing. For one, the male-centricity of work environments, which mirrors the larger global society, prompts women to undermine their ideas and efforts.
Lacking confidence in your work has the potential of causing a negative spiral on your overall job success and advancement. This lack of confidence may even lead to imposter syndrome, a term coined by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in their 1978 research on high-achieving women. In 2017, scholars at the University of Texas at Austin studied imposter syndrome in college students and found that it exponentially affects the mental health of students from minority groups, more so than their racial counterparts. Dr. Kevin Cokley found that African American students with high rates of imposter syndrome also had increased rates of anxiety and discrimination-related depression.
Black women can similarly face imposter syndrome and its effects at work. Prior to starting college, a student at my high school told me I got into the schools I did because I was a Black girl and that stuck with me long after I enrolled. It is hard to feel like you belong when you feel like an imposter and all of your achievements are squandered by your innate identities. This makes it difficult to have a rapport with colleagues given your physical differences. It also makes it difficult to get ahead, particularly when it is often audacity, and not a skill set, that allows others to get ahead. Can Black women be bold and passionate without being labelled as hostile?
Whether the challenges Black women face at work are due to conscious or unconscious biases, these roadblocks place a toll on our very existence that men often do not face. When considering the challenges women of color face due to their intersectional identities, the physical and emotional taxation can be multilayered. In instances where one may want to be seen as more assertive, a Black woman’s self-confidence can be read as anger or difficult to work with. Last year, tennis champion and business mogul Serena Williams was widely chastised across the media for her reaction to cheating allegations during the 2018 US Open. Another example of race-based discrimination in the workplace is a recent crackdown on natural hair. Legal scholars Drs. Wendy Greene and Angela Onwuachi-Willig have published research here and here on the legality of workplace hair discrimination.
What Can We Do?
What do you do when your innate attributes question your livelihood? It is a major stressor to be preoccupied with self-presentation or with how others perceive you. I, for one, have felt exhausted and even fearful of how others’ observations affect workplace dynamics. I’ve even challenged myself, particularly with email communication, to go against the grain and completely remove exclamation points altogether.
Here are my other tips to overcome workplace issues and imposter syndrome.
- Find your allies. Good friends and colleagues can alleviate much of the stress so you don’t have to suffer in silence. Finding others facing the same issues can help you make a better claim if you want to suggest ways to make your workplace a more amicable environment for people of various backgrounds. Sharing your feelings is also pretty cathartic.
- Positive Affirmations. Positive affirmations have significantly helped me remember the best parts of myself when I am drumming on my shortcomings. You can write your own or download apps that uplift you throughout the day.
- Get a mentor. While a mentor can also be an ally, mentors are often more seasoned and hold a more advanced position. This can make all the difference if you need a professional advocate who has more experience and authority with your employer.
- Keep a journal. At times, we become so adroit at our jobs that we forget where we started from. Tracking your growth is a great way to monitor how much you’ve learned and developed, not to mention the positive effects of self-talk and reflection on the brain.
- Reward yourself. Whether it has been an exhilarating day or a really bad one. Maybe you just presented that project you’ve been working on for months. Either way, you deserve a treat for doing the best you can do. My go-to treat is a slice of carrot cake!
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