Key Takeaways from ESSENCE's Black Women at Work Panel

Photo by Michael Rowe
MSNBC host and ESSENCE contributor Melissa Harris-Perry hosted the panel, exploring everything from the importance of mentors to Black women going natural at work.

Last Friday, professional Black women descended upon the Time-Life building to discuss the implicit biases and unique challenges that Black women face in a traditional White-dominated workplace. The panel moderated by MSNBC host and ESSENCE contributor Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, included high ranking corporate Black women: Wanji Walcott, Managing Counsel for American Express; Nailah Flake-Brown, a Managing Director at Morgan Stanley; and Shawn Outler, a Senior Vice President at Macy’s. The wide ranging discussion covered everything from expressions of anger, crying at the office, strategic risk-taking in order to move up the corporate ladder and even the decision to wear your natural hair at the office. 

ESSENCE Editor-in-Chief Vanessa DeLuca framed the discussion saying, “Many times, being Black and female can create a uniquely complicated work environment for African-American women. Today we lead all U.S. women in labor force participation rates, yet even in 2015, Black women still encounter systemic hurdles throughout their careers that continue to perpetuate feelings of inequality and discrimination.” 

While all of the panelists agreed they are aware at all times of “The Angry Black Woman” label, that fear doesn’t make them less likely to confront a peer for a perceived wrong; they are just more strategic and thoughtful in how they approach the conversation.  

“I was very, very angry [just this past] Monday,” Walcott said, “[A] peer in my organization, instead of collaborating with me, was doing something backdoor. And it’s something that is in my wheelhouse but not in his. And yet he was taking all of this action on this particular project. I was very angry  I wasn’t thinking ‘Gee, I’m a Black woman and I’m angry, what is this going to look like?'  I was thinking, 'I’m angry!’ The only thing I did wonder is would he have done this to me if I were a man? And I do not ask that question often, but I did ask that question because the level of disrespect, from my point of view, was tremendous. And so I was trying to figure out why and how this happened. I am very direct...And so I immediately sent an email to address the issue so we could move forward, and we did.”

Other workplace situations are harder to move on from. Walcott also recounted her most overtly racist work experience when she and a co-worker spotted a nasty water bug during a meeting. After stepping on the bug, her White male co-worker said, “Well, I don’t know what you’re so worried about. Your ancestors used to eat bugs like this.”  While cringe-inducing, this overtly racist remark is less common than those seemingly benign and pesky questions about your hair routine.

Outler says that she did recently transition to natural hair, and getting her hair together for the work day is something that she struggles with every day. “It is something that I have to manage. I think it’s a huge challenge I deal with on a daily basis. So I’ve gone to work testing the curly hair, the straight, the twists, and those conversations take a long time when co-workers ask me what I do with my hair….Sometimes you just want to go to work and do your job, and it takes up a lot of time explaining to everyone what you did to your hair.”

Black women in particular are hyperaware of how they are perceived at work by both peers and superiors. The #BlackWomenAtWork study found that 80 percent of Black women felt they needed to adjust their personalities to get ahead in their career. Twenty-one percent of Black women say they are more likely to say they are different at work than they are at home, 70 percent of Black women fear being labeled an Angry Black Woman by their co-workers and 57 percent of Black women agree that they have to look a certain way to be promoted. The study concludes that the majority of Black women are, “[c]ompelled by their desire to succeed Black women tend to project the least threatening typology—the Acculturated Girl Next Door, a professional woman who is safe and adaptable.”  This unique form of code switching by Black women to assimilate into White-dominated workplaces is not only psychologically damaging, but it’s also counter-productive.  

The key to navigating this tricky terrain is for Black women to do their best to remain their authentic selves so that their peers and coworkers feel increasingly comfortable around them. “I’ve learned over the course of my career that people didn’t always feel that they could connect with me,” Walcott says, “They thought I was buttoned-up; they thought I was professional; they trusted what I had to say, but they couldn’t really connect with me...It’s really important for people to feel comfortable around you, to connect with you both personally and professionally.”  Building these interpersonal relationships and rapport with work colleagues improves the odds that Black women will be considered for increased work responsibilities, new assignments and promotions.

All of the panelists agreed that among the most important relationships to develop include the relationship with a mentor. “The importance of having a mentor not only that you can speak to but that you understand that you need to get ahead in your career. I had to understand very early on that I was not going to make it on my own,” said Flake-Brown.  

In addition to a mentor, it’s also important for Black women to find a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who you speak with less often than a mentor, but who is powerful enough to be a vocal advocate on your behalf when you aren’t in the room. “Sponsors are those people who can really validate your work,” says Outler.

With the help of mentors and sponsors along the way, Black women can better plan how they want to take the strategic risks necessary for career advancement. “Taking risks is the key to being able to move forward and to be able to reach a certain level of success,” says Flake-Brown. “You have to be able to take calculated risks. And you have to think about the pros and the cons and make sure that you give people confidence around your ability to get the job done. [It’s important to demonstrate] that you thought through all of the issues.” In the end, it comes down to preparation ahead of time and making sure that if you are taking on an assignment that is outside of your wheelhouse, you have done all of the necessary research.  

The bottom line for a Black woman with her eye on the corner office is to remain true to her authentic personality along the way, while strategically building relationships, and planning ahead well before there is an opportunity for advancement.

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