Black Women at Work: How We Shape Our Identities On the Job

Photo by Dan Dalton
As we climb the corporate ladder, many of us believe we must leave our true identities behind. Here's why this strategy could be hindering our success.

In our November issue, we revealed part one of an exclusive study with research consultants Added Value Cheskin. In it we found that Black women are increasingly concerned with how they're perceived by their peers and superiors on the job. Now, in part two, we discover that the tactics we've been using to appear a certain way to our colleagues may actually be holding us back. Read on to find out how to get out of your own way.

If you've ever straightened your natural hair before an important meeting or code-switched on a conference call, you're not alone. But a groundbreaking ESSENCE study about Black women's experiences in White-dominated workplaces shows that altering key aspects of our identities in order to blend in is not only psychologically damaging, but it could also be keeping us from scoring the promotions we deserve.

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What we found is that scores of us are so worried about being perceived negatively that we hide our authentic selves in the workplace, choosing instead to tone down our appearance, soften our demeanor and hold back in our conversations. More than 70 percent of the 650 African-American women we surveyed fear being labeled an Angry Black Woman by their coworkers, and 40 percent believe others see them as the Acculturated Girl Next Door, a professional woman who is unthreatening, safe and adaptable.

Switching between "work me" and "personal me" is exhausting and doing us more harm than good. When you hide your true self behind a mask at work, it's like walking around with your hands tied, says Kym Harris, Ed.D., president of Your SweetSpot Coaching and Consulting in Atlanta. "When you use so much energy being something you're not, you don't have enough left to be the best you can be."

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What's more: This strategy isn't even giving us the results we want. Our study showed that Black women in the upper echelons of corporate America (CEOs, CFOs and so on) did not limit themselves to being viewed as the girl next door, but rather they believe others perceive them as Inspiring Stars, women who are more eager to take risks, open up and share the unique traits that make them different.

So how can we use this knowledge to our advantage? When you let your guard down and allow bosses and colleagues to see your distinct qualities, they'll become more comfortable around you and get a better sense of your strengths. That often leads to more visible projects, raises and promotions. "Authenticity fosters common ground," Harris says.

BECOME AN INSPIRING STAR

Sharing more of your authentic self in the workplace can be challenging if you've been playing it safe, so take these baby steps to loosen up and get ahead:

PERSONALIZE YOUR SPACE
Your work area can say a lot about you. Bring in pictures of children, vacations or other memorable moments in your life. "Those become conversation pieces," Harris says. When colleagues ask about them, take the opportunity to share a personal story.

SET BOUNDARIES
Opening up to colleagues doesn't mean telling them about your latest breakup or relationship drama. "Determine in advance what you're comfortable sharing," Harris says. Have preplanned topics of conversation, such as your kids' basketball games, a movie you saw or a favorite hobby.

INCORPORATE ELEMENTS OF YOUR PERSONAL STYLE 
While your clothing and appearance should be in line with your job's culture, you should look for small ways to bring in aspects of your personality. If you prefer an Afrocentric look, consider accessories like an African print scarf or a "funky little pin you can put on your lapel," Harris suggests.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.

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