This post is sponsored by Forté. All opinions are 100% my own!
When you are a woman of color working in a corporate environment, you may face challenges that your white, male counterparts will not experience.
Here’s what I’ve experienced over the last eight years of my career:
- I have had a male coworker run their fingers through my hair and tell me how much they liked it without my permission.
- I have been mansplained to more times than I care to recount.
- I have been called “baby” by a male coworker before (yes, in the office).
- I've been asked by a colleague if “that is your real hair?”
- Speaking of hair, I've also been told I could not wear my hair curly (its natural texture) at work since it isn't considered “professional”
- And I have most definitely felt like I was being held to a higher standard or treated differently because of my gender or race.
- I've been the only woman in a meeting room and the only woman (and person) of color) in an organization
The truth is it’s complicated being a woman and working in an environment with a majority of men. Women who work in these environments know that racial and gender bias isn’t always overt, so it can be hard to pinpoint exactly why a situation feels wrong—especially if you’re experiencing it for the first time.
I have learned how to navigate these waters a little more smoothly (although not perfectly) now. If you experience some type of bias in the workplace, follow my tips and tactics below on how to handle it.
1. Keep Your Cool
First and foremost you have to keep your cool.
The last thing you want to do is just react. This can be difficult in the heat of the moment, believe me I know! But it is so necessary. Depending on who the offender is, they may have the power to fire you, reprimand you, or at the very least report you to HR. So staying calm is essential.
If someone does or says something to me that I believe may involve bigotry of some sort, I write it down just as I take any other notes during the day. Not to seek vengeance or anything on that person, but to have a record of what happened so I can make sense of it—which leads me to the next step.
2. Assess The Situation
When you get a minute alone it is time to reflect and assess the situation. I've realized that my emotions let me know if something seems askew long before I can logically reason why I feel a certain way. So, for this reason, I make sure to take time to really break down the situation.
Sometimes it's me. I was in a mood, misread something, or completely misjudged a situation.
Then there are other times when I really break down a comment and decipher its meaning. When assessing, I like to consider these questions: “Why would they say that?” Who was it directed towards? Why did I become upset about this comment?”
I know these sound like very basic questions, but sometimes this simple task is enough to break down the complexity of gender and racial bias. Once you have your conclusion on how you feel about it, it is time to get some advice.
3. Get Advice From Other Women in the Workplace
This is personally my favorite step because this is when you can finally get the validation and perspective you need. It is always nice to get the opinion of someone outside of the organization you work for. Preferably, someone who also understands the complexities of gender and racial bias in their own career.
In this regard, I feel most comfortable speaking to other professional women and people of color. Talking to my sisters about their experiences at work helps me make sense of what I’ve experienced.
But not everyone has a team of sisters to turn to for advice. So where do other people go?
My suggestion is Forté. I love the concept of Forté. They have a number of resources for women who are trying to transcend in their own careers. Signing up for their free membership allows you to join a community of 100,000 women who are committed to gender equity through Forté’s programs. No matter where you are in your career, from college to CEO, you’ll find events especially for you as you build your network of like-minded women.
They have a program called Forté Connect that allows you to connect with other career-driven women. So you can most definitely chat with other women who “get it” and are working against similar challenges to you in the workplace. And if you want to get the men in your organization to help prevent gender bias at work, check out their Men As Allies program, which provides resources, tools, inspiration, and instruction for getting men to engage in the gender equity conversation.
While these features alone are reason enough to join their free membership, they do have a number of other resources—see the list below.
- Forté showcases the endless career options available in business through its hands-on, experiential programs and resources
- Forté supports women throughout the MBA process—from consideration to graduation—helping them maximize their MBA experience.
- Forté provides women at all stages of their careers with skill-building workshops and job center access.
- Forté introduces its audience to top business schools, leading companies, and like-minded peers.
- Forté motivates women through role models who speak at events and share their stories online.
Want to learn more? You can check them out here: fortefoundation.org
4. Take Action
Now that you've confirmed how you felt and maybe even vented a little, it is time to take action. How you take action depends on the type of company you are in. And of course, whatever you decide to do, keep your company's policies, office politics, and any other structures of this nature in mind. At the end of the day, our goal is to make your workspace more comfortable for yourself and others like you with as little confrontation as possible.
Talk to Your Colleague or Boss
I believe there is a right way, and a wrong way to talk to your colleague or boss about gender equality and a possible snafu on their end. You do not want to be accusatory, condescending, or mean. This is already a sensitive topic, and adding those elements to the mix just makes things more complex. You want to try to be calm, understanding, and straightforward.
Ask them if they have a few minutes to chat and find a private room to talk. Remind them of the setting where the comment took place and remind them of what they said. Let them know how you felt when they said it and why you felt that way. Conclude by letting them know you would feel much more comfortable if they refrained from using the language they used before.
Talk to Human Resources (HR)
If a colleague made you feel uncomfortable and you do not believe that talking to them will resolve the issue, it may be a good idea to involve HR. You have to know the full story and let them know why you felt uncomfortable. The good part about going to HR is that it creates a record of what happened, which is especially helpful if it happens again.
Make a Decision on How You'll Handle it Next Time
There are some slights of gender bias that happen so quickly or catch us so off guard that we freeze at the moment, and only later do we think about how we would have handled things differently. For example, I have had an alarmingly high number of strangers touch my hair without my permission and ask me if my hair is my own.
In the past, I was horrified and simply froze. , But now I've gotten better at dodging this occurrence. When I see people reaching for my hair, I pull away. And if they then ask to touch my hair, I simply say no. If they ask me if my hair is real, I respond with, “Is YOUR hair real?” or “Why is that any of your business?”
And this works! Bringing to light that they are treating me differently than they would another colleague typically deters this from happening, at least with that person, again.
Leave the Company
Leaving the organization should be a last resort. Before you quit, see if there’s a move you can make inside the company that might result in a better situation: depending on the size of your organization, you may qualify for a different job, or you may be able to move to a different department. Consider whether you can find a different department in your company.
But if your organization isn’t committed to gender equality, if it’s a toxic place to work, and if you find there are a number of women who have already left the organization for similar reasons, it may be a sign that it is time for you to pack your bags as well. If this is something you are seriously considering, take some time to ponder all the reasons you want to leave. You should check out my article 10 Ways You know It's Time to Quit Your Job.
These are my best tips on how women in corporate America should handle workplace bias. I am curious to know what your stories are. Let me know in the comments about how you've handled gender bias and any bias against your race and ethnicity in the workplace before.
If you are interested in more career resources for women, I highly recommend you check out Forté. They are highly committed to gender equality in the workplace and have done a fine job of building a community of women who want to aim higher.