Thank you for being brave enough to tell your story, our story, parts of a story that many of us Black women can relate to - lawyers or not. Thank you for talking about the "Elephant in The Room."
The article was shared with me by lawyers (some no longer on Bay Street) and other women in Corporate with cries of "Me too, I can so relate, I'm not surprised" and who also wanted to get my opinion.
Listen to the audio version of this article:
While I am not a lawyer and cannot relate to the recruitment and experiences in the Law Firm industry, as a Black woman, an immigrant Black woman who started her career on Bay Street in the Technology & Operations division of a major financial institution, in her mid-twenties, I can relate to the question of belonging, feeling like an outsider, not fitting in, invisibility, immigrant blues and more. And surprise, surprise, I wasn't the only one.
Another Black woman private messaged me and said:
"I cried reading it. So relatable."
Truth be told our workplaces have not evolved with our workforce. Women of colour are a growing and underutilized resource. Research shows that senior leadership does not reflect the diversity of our population and more and more women of colour are leaving the workforce due to lack of a better word "not fitting in or lack of belonging."
The microaggressions women of colour go through every day, and still show up to do the work is why I do what I do. I didn't fully understand terms like microaggression, conformity, emotional tax, psychological health & safety until after I went through my own battle with emotional tax and the negative impact on my psychological health & safety.
First let's deconstruct mircoaggressions
"There are several types of racial microaggressions and coping strategies Black women who have broken through the “concrete ceiling” of corporate leadership face", says Dr. Aisha Holder, a psychologist at Columbia University Counseling and Psychological Services in her lecture 'Racial Microaggressions and Coping Strategies of Black Women in Corporate Leadership'.
The article as seen on Fordham University's site states: "The term “microaggression” was coined by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s as “subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously.” According to research, persistent microaggressions can lead to a variety of symptoms, including anxiety, paranoia, depression, sleep difficulties, lack of confidence, and feelings of worthlessness. Holder mentioned that Black women are particularly vulnerable to microaggressions and their effects due to their intersectional identities.
Who else can relate to the anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, crying yourself to sleep, lack of confidence and feelings of worthlessness? *My hand is up*
Reading Hadiya's story affirmed my experiences, recalled all the microaggressions I coped with or ignored and validated something I knew all along - that I am not alone. And if you can relate to this - you are not alone. But truth be told, we women of color are tired of talking about microaggressions in the workplace (due to lack of action by Senior Management), feel like it's not a big deal (be quiet, perform, perfect & please) or do not talk (enough) unless we're in the hospital, go on short-term disability, our marriages are in the dumps, we are struggling with heart disease, cancer, and the list goes on. We are left to enter the wilderness daily with no tools in our First-Aid Kit aka Self-Care: Mental & Emotional Resilience box.
Reading this story also gleaned 6 powerful leadership strategies Hadiya employed (some I did try and others I wish someone had told me) - strategies I believe that women of colour can employ in order to thrive (we've been surviving for so long) in the workplace.
6 Leadership Strategies For the Woman Of Colour on Bay Street
1. Know & understand your authentic self - who you are before entering the workplace
Know who you want to be in your role. We all wear so many hats and can get lost in those hats. Know the type of woman you want to be remembered by based on your values, what matters to you the most & the legacy you would like to leave behind. I wished someone told me this when I entered the doors on Bay Street.
Because every other person and experience will try to define you. They will try to label you with their actions. Some will blatantly ignore you, pretend you're not there, won't answer your emails directly, ignore your contributions on the project or as experienced by Hadiya will treat you with the invisibility card. Unfortunately for some, you will represent ALL Black/South Asian/Chinese/Filipino/Latin Canadian or Aboriginal person. And without a definition of who you are - of what the authentic version of you is - we default to what others say about us & do to us. A colleague asked me where I got my clothes from and she didn't know that we have "regular" clothes where I'm from. (I wanted to tell her that no, we actually dress in leaves and swing from trees and I bought these when I moved to Canada.) I didn't say, I smiled, swallowed the anger and carried on as if I didn't hear her. Knowing who you are won't change how others will treat you, but it will help define how you show up, how you communicate and will help keep you on track with the leader you would like to be.
2. Be political - understand the leadership and cultural climate & find mentors, sponsors & allies
"But when a firm is mostly white, who do you have to be and what experiences do you have to have to belong? What does it mean to be like them?" - Hadiya Roderique
A powerful and insightful (painful), necessary question. While my work environment did get very multi-cultural, when Senior Management is mostly white, this drives the conversation and the leadership climate of any organization. As Hadiya mentioned, "I knew to talk of Glenfiddich and cottages, not roti and park barbeques; to mention my father's engineering degree, not his occupation. I knew what to talk about to get the job." We women of colour do not have a choice. Just by being who we are, we walk into a climate and environment where we are the minority and walk right into the Double-Bind dilemma - Damned if you do, Doomed if you don't. According to the Catalyst, The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership Report, the Double-Bind is:
"Double bind n (1) A psychological impasse created when contradictory demands are made of an individual...so that no matter which directive is followed, the response will be construed as incorrect. (2) A situation in which a person must choose between equally unsatisfactory alternatives; a punishing and inescapable dilemma.1 We all know the feeling of being trapped in a double bind—that nagging sense that whatever you do, you can do no right. Few know what that feels like more than women in corporate management."
That nagging sense that whatever you do, you can do no right is something that is exacerbated based on race and ethnicity. No matter what you do people's biases will always cloud how they see you and your place in the organization. Understanding this as a woman of colour, know that your leadership strategy needs to be different. Find mentors, sponsors and allies of different races, gender and ethnicity - learn from them, share your elevator pitch, attend the "Visible Events", get to know the Executive Assistants of the key players. Yes, you will have to work harder and you will have to play the game differently - but if you are in the game, suit up and play to win.
3. Understand the cost of Emotional Tax
"Whitening is just one of the many ways we try to fit into these worlds when we would rather they expand to include us." - Hadiya Roderique
Hadiya had to whiten her resume. She struggled with what name she should put on her resume, which items she should include, got berated for spending time with a sick friend, worried about fitting in, how she should wear her hair, is she being too Black, fear of not being seen. I felt her pain when she wrote this: "For a while I stood there, dumbfounded by his lack of interest in me. He was clean-shaven in a well-fitting grey suit. He had white hair and blue eyes that ignored me as if I were under a Romulan cloaking device." Even in her black pinstripe Holt Renfrew suit, the Assistants did not even fathom that she might be a lawyer - they automatically assumed she was an Assistant. Another case of invisibility. And the list goes on. Catalyst defines Emotional Tax as:
"The heightened experience of being different from peers at work because of your gender and/or race/ethnicity and the associated detrimental effects on health, wellbeing, and the ability to thrive at work."
Emotional tax is real and contributes significantly to stress in the workplace. There is a cost to put on, deemphasize our differences, be seen as competent, good enough, smart enough and more.
The Catalyst Report specifically shows that Emotional Tax:
"Emotional Tax can deplete Black employees’ sense of well-being by making them feel that they have to be “on guard,” disrupting sleep patterns, reducing their sense of “psychological safety,”3 and diminishing their ability to contribute at work.
So if you feel like you're making it up, know that you're not - stock up your First-Aid Kit - Mental and Emotional Resilience Box). Mine included calling the Employee Assistance Line, walks downtown, the gym, time with friends and family, confidential conversations with mentors and sponsors, working on something meaningful outside of work, colouring and more.
4. Become emotionally agile - own your emotional power
"I still feel some discomfort, guilt and shame about my time at the firm. Uncomfortable that I kept myself boxed in. Shame that I didn't stand up for myself and my values and push the needle on what constituted a good associate. Guilt that I didn't do more to stick around to be there for the next black woman to come up the ranks." Hadiya Roderique
Embrace your emotions, it's just data. Like Hayida, I have struggled with speaking up, suppressing my emotions and just letting things go. Did I do enough for the next Black woman coming after me? This is something I agonised over. Mentoring young women - sharing what I learned was one of the ways I dealt with this. As mentioned in the point above Emotional Tax is real. Develop emotional agility so that you can review the data (your emotions) for insight and facts that can help you make better decisions. Truth be told, you will get triggered at work. You will face discomfort, encounter adult bullies, bosses who will yell at you, direct racism, overt racism, sexism, sexual harassment, people will try to manipulate you and more.
You will feel a range of emotions most of them being a result of your race, gender & ethnicity. Being your authentic self at work will require you to tap into your most powerful resource - your emotions. Feel for analysis, not to act, get curious. Emotional intelligence is that one tool we need in our Mental and Emotional Resilience First-Aid Kit. And as research shows, effective leaders are highly emotionally intelligent. When you suppress your emotions, you lose access to a metric needed for sound decision making, crucial conversations, strategic influencing, and relationship building. This also helps you to understand the emotional tax, and how you can leverage your emotional data in a powerful way, allowing you to tap into your resilience. Emotions are data - a messenger, and according to Susan David, Author of Emotional Agility, "Emotional agility gives your actions greater power because they emanate from your core values and your core strengths."
She says, “Life is full of diving boards and other precipices, but, as we’ve seen throughout this discussion of emotional agility, making the leap is not about ignoring, fixing, fighting, or controlling fear—or anything else you might be experiencing. Rather, it’s about accepting and noticing all your emotions and thoughts, viewing even the most powerful of them with compassion and curiosity, and then choosing courage over comfort in order to do whatever you’ve determined is most important to you. Courage, once again, is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking." - Susan David, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life
5. Leverage the power of sisterhood
Hadiya talked about meeting with Donna Walwyn a fellow lawyer on Bay Street. We cannot do it alone and we will never be able to. Women are faced with a double bind in the workplace. We walk into spaces where the playing field isn't level and where women of colour do have to work twice as hard to be considered for that next role. Not hired, considered. Organizations do the research, have the data and have yet to move to implement these changes. As Melinda Gates said, "We’re sending our daughters into a workplace designed for our dads."
Truth be told we're sending our daughters into a workplace designed for our dads and Caucasian women. It is not designed for women of colour and aboriginal women just yet but with stories like Hadiya and mine and hopefully several others - we will share the lessons, the leadership strategies, the word of advice, how to write that email, how to carry that emotional tax so that it doesn't break you and more. I have learned so much from my Sponsor Claudette, if it wasn't for her I wouldn't be here helping women understand their brains better so they can master their automatic negative thoughts, emotions and play bigger - legacy bigger at work and in life. So leverage the power of sisterhood. Drop me a note if you don't have someone and let's have coffee - it's on me:)
6. Be loyal to the most important person in your life - YOU.
I worked hard, at times sleeping four hours a night so I wouldn't say no to any projects. - Hadiya Roderique
And even with working hard and getting rave reviews, Hadiya still worried whether she would fit in, would get an offer or not. (She did) But her anguish and fear of not being "good enough" is something I can relate and I am sure you can relate too. You work hard, get handed the big projects yet you are still not good enough for that senior role. You have to know when to get up from the table if you're not being fed. Too often women fall into the "fear of being disliked" trap and end up overstaying our welcome in a particular position or job. After realizing that she wanted more, Hayida left for another position at a small firm and is now pursuing her Ph.D. at U of T since then. She fought for the best version of herself and is doing something she loves - she went from leadership to legacy. And by sharing her story she inspires us all to do just that.
Research shows that women of colour are loyal to a fault. We are too loyal to jobs and organizations who are not willing to make real space for us. I too left Bay Street earlier this year, to pursue my own dreams- thanks in part to my Sponsor. I did it because I would like to see a world where Gender Equality is realized. I want to see more women of colour on Boards, in Senior Leadership positions, becoming partners and most importantly enjoying their journey to success. Focusing on what matters the most - having the freedom to pursue their work with unbridled passion without the gremlins of worrying about their hair, stereotypes and more. I want women to focus on what's right with them and use that as a leadership strategy - something they can use to advance their career.
Will that day come? I hope so. I am working with ambitious women to do just that and a huge part of what I call the Leadership to Legacy impact score is having my clients find one other mentee - a woman of colour and share what she has learned - so that we can increase their Legacy Score and make a difference where they are today.
Through my LEAD with Confidence Program - a free neuro-based leadership program for Caribbean Millenials we are helping leaders lead with confidence regardless of their title, to speak up, believe in themselves, be bold for change and mentor others on their way up.
We cannot keep ignoring the elephant in the room. In order to fully leverage the talent and skills Black women, women of colour and Aboriginal women bring to the table, we need to acknowledge that something different needs to be done.
Bay Street needs to be bold for change, by actually making real change. They need to be held accountable. Part of this change starts with you and your story. Define what your Leadership to Legacy story is. And start living it today. How will you be bold for change? You do not need to leave Bay Street like Hadiya and me , but there is something you can do right now, where you are. Define your legacy story and start living it.
Who do you want to be when you leave this earth? What will your orbituary say? How will you be bold for change? If you had to coach your younger self or your daughter through what you are struggling with right now in the workplace - what would you tell her?
Whatever you would tell your younger self or an Aboriginal or young woman of colour - do that thing now. Because what the world needs now, more than ever is your brilliant, brave, scared self. As my virtual mentor, Social Scientist Dr. Brene Brown reminds us all, "You can be brave and afraid at the same time."
So be bold, take action - do that one thing now.