Updated: May 12, 2020
In case you haven't noticed from the photo on my homepage, I'm a young, black female. In my experience, I tend to be the minority in every office I visit - whether it is for a job interview, to meet a client, or in my actual role - there are rarely more than 10 others that look like me. My geographical location definitely plays a part in this (I live in the Midwest), however statistically data shows the higher you climb in corporate America, the less color and and gender diversity you will see.
According to an article published by CNN Money, as of 2017 women made up just 6.4% of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. To put it into perspective, out of the 500 companies on Fortune's annual Top 500 Companies list, a woman sat in the command seat of just 32 of them. Can you guess how many of those woman are black women? Zero... it's worth mentioning, there are three black men CEOs on the list (which is still a pathetic representation of our race in this example), but you get my point. What makes this even more disturbing is research shows black women are among the most educated class of citizens in the USA - obtaining the most degrees since 2009 consecutively, yet we are also the most underpaid group of citizens in corporate America, making just $0.63 to our white male counterparts for the same role. If you didn't say "what the H-E double hockey sticks", read that again please.
I say all this to say being a black woman in corporate America is immediately a disadvantage simply because of the way I look. In my career I have encountered racism, sexism and pure ignorance towards me as a woman and a Black American. While I may have been uncomfortable at the time, I am grateful for every experience because I have learned three key things about being a minority in corporate America and how to "take lemons and make lemonade" for my professional development:
1) I have to make myself known. It's no secret moving up the ladder is 25% what you know and 75% who you know. Most minorities immediately start off at a disadvantage because our "who you know" circle is usually pretty small. I don't come from a long line of business owners and C-Suite executives with large professional networks who could easily get me internships and job offers. You have to accept your position on the totem pole for what it is. Take it and work with that - start networking, join clubs in college and find a mentor. Don't be the hermit at your job who eats alone; instead, invite your colleagues to go to lunch and build relationships. No one is going to make an effort to get to know you (except your freshman roommate and your coworkers during your first week on the job). If you want to climb the ladder in corporate America you need to build trust with those around you.
2) I have to work twice as hard. This probably comes as no surprise, but it is the unfortunate truth and here's why. First, I look young, as in I still get carded when I order a Rum Punch at Outback - so this immediately gives my older colleagues (and clients) the impression I am inexperienced. Second, I am black and without diving off the deep end into the blatant racism of the Midwest, let me just say this: a recent study by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found that after surveying 279 companies with a total of over 64,000 employees, 40% of black women had their judgement questioned in their area of expertise. I wasn't in the survey, but I can confirm in my current role, where I sit on a team of nine (eight women, one man), I constantly have to show my work to other members on my team, or other HR staff in the company. My colleagues do not. [**You can find the full article and survey details here: https://womenintheworkplace.com/ **]
3) Don't take offense to Ignorance. As I said above, I have come across some truly ignorant people in my career. For example, I've been told my natural curls look like "I have been electrocuted" by a 60 year old white man, and I've had my light skin compared to a white woman's tan. As ridiculous as these actions were, I remind myself not everyone has contact with black people. Our cultures and behavior is different and can be unfamiliar to others. I'm not going to pretend like I am well versed on Spanish culture or Asian traditions - I could be liable to offend if I was submerged in Tokyo. If you come across a situation when someone does or says something inappropriate out of ignorance - not disrespect - the professional way to handle the situation is to correct them. Explain to them calmly that their action is offensive and makes you uncomfortable. There is no need to make a viral video of #HarassmentHarry for The Shaderoom - just correct their wrong so they know going forward their behavior is not okay.
Sometimes we are faced with harsh real world problems that we cannot control. Although it can be frustrating, use these experiences to adapt and sharpen your approach to different audiences. It can be (and will be) intimidating when you are the only female at the conference table, or only minority in your department, but remember you belong there. You are intelligent, you have earned this role and you deserve respect from your colleagues. Show your work and keep the receipts because they will be called on, for one reason or another. Don't get discouraged - at the end of the day, although our road is less traveled, it will come with greater rewards.