3 Strategies to Help Women of Color Navigate Biases at Work
By Hira Ali
Women of color face an amplified and distinctive set of challenges as they climb their career ladders, including isolation, acculturative stress, and bias. Many women of color in leadership positions have shared how they’ve been expected to perform above and beyond the norm.
People who belong to stigmatized minority groups often experience a “stereotype threat,” or fear of confirming negative stereotypes associated with their social group. Historically, women leaders have faced gender stereotypes that have interfered with the general perception of their competence and held them to higher standards in evaluations and intense internal scrutiny by women themselves. Women of color have to contend with additional pejorative stereotypes. These include the docility and model minority myths for Asian women; the angry Black woman trope attached to Black women; and the oppressive, “in need of rescuing” labels imposed on Muslim women.
While the responsibility for leveling the playing field lies first and foremost with company leaders, women of color can adopt strategies to survive and succeed in spite of the inequity they face. Here are three strategies to try, based on my work with clients.
Own your brand.
People who confidently step up and demonstrate leadership, no matter their background, are hard to ignore. Once you learn how to own your brand and showcase it, you will become in-demand talent that renders stereotypes irrelevant.
To counter internal barriers and their effects, take charge of your brand instead of waiting for others create it for you. Solicit frequent feedback from your manager to help you control your own narrative. Sometimes the response can be reaffirming, but the women I talk to are often surprised by the discrepancy between how they see themselves and how others perceive them. This perception-versus-reality gap is particularly amplified for women of color, who may be more reserved and shy away from self-advocating.
If what you’re hearing doesn’t square with who you are, take action by dispelling misconceptions and carving out a space for yourself that’s uniquely aligned with your goals and strengths. Substantiate your value with evidence of what you’ve accomplished, and feel free to put yourself forward. Don’t passively wait until year-end appraisals. Actively seek developmental feedback linked to business goals. Be direct — ask what skills you need to improve and which projects will help shore up your technical acumen. If you detect bias, ask for more explanation. For example:
I appreciate your earlier feedback and would like some additional context. I didn’t realize that was your impression of me, and I would like to address it. Please help me understand why you feel that way. Can you share specific examples where I exhibited this tendency?
Share your beliefs, values, and practices.
Women of color may experience additional stress as they try to adapt to the values and orientation of their dominant workplace cultures. A complex and stressful interpersonal and social environment that feels unfamiliar can exacerbate poor mental health and pressure to conform.
The Johari Window framework offers valuable insights to help with self-awareness. The tool consists of four windows that prompt you to identify what you know about yourself and what others know about you. One of the windows describes personal information known to us that we’ve kept hidden from others. We keep this information private because we fear judgement, labeling, and stereotyping, but sharing it can also have its benefits.
The Johari Window
For example, I used to think others would judge me because I don’t drink alcohol, but sharing this actually helped people accommodate me. I discovered it was less exhausting to be myself rather than hide my values. The first time I went to a pub for a UK work event, I was visibly uncomfortable because the smell of alcohol was getting to my head. I initially didn’t say anything, but realized people might misunderstand my expressions, so I shared my unease. The team listened empathetically, opened windows, and let in fresh air. Some of my colleagues rolled their eyes, but I chose to ignore it; most team members were happy to accommodate me. Next time, they ensured ventilation and ordered water and orange juice for me beforehand. Soon enough, I no longer required special arrangements, but the networking event would have been more challenging if I hadn’t been up front. Similarly, I now communicate my food preferences so colleagues can cater to my dietary requirements when possible. You don’t get what you don’t ask for.
We all uphold and reflect values from our families, nationality, faith, and individual experiences. These unique profiles define who we are and should be respected and embraced.
One of my clients, Tania,* shared how her manager would become frustrated when she took time off to take her grandmother to doctor appointments. Her manager couldn’t understand why this was necessary when the grandmother was perfectly healthy and mobile. Tania was raised in a South Asian family with a strong focus on collectivism and family values. Supporting her grandmother was an essential part of her value system, unlike other western cultures that tend to prioritize individualism. When she communicated her cultural values, her manager understood the importance of family care.
Hiding rituals essential to our cultural identity can adversely impact our self-esteem and sense of belonging while creating potential misunderstandings. Such experiences can leave us reluctant to embrace our cultural identity in full. We can encourage others to be inclusive, aware, and respectful of “other” traditions and practices not considered mainstream by talking about what we ordinarily choose to hide. Sharing allows others to make more informed and culturally sensitive decisions. Just because a tradition or practice doesn’t fall within the parameters of what others deem socially acceptable doesn’t mean it’s invalid. If you’re unsure of how to share your defining values, here’s one potential approach:
I understand this is unfamiliar to you, but it’s an integral part of my value system. In my culture, this is how we [do/celebrate/follow]. This is my personal choice; this has not been imposed on me, nor am I pressured to do it. I would appreciate it if you could respect my choice without judgment.
Identify common bonds.
The less you can relate to people around you, the more isolating it can feel. There will always be fewer people like you at the top, plus the systems in place create limited opportunities for women of color, and the resulting competition can accentuate feelings of loneliness. For example, “tug-of-war bias” and the “queen bee phenomenon” can occur when marginalized people are pitted against each other for those limited opportunities. These biases can be perpetuated even by people in your own social group, which makes support more difficult.
While there may be situations where you feel like an outsider, make a concerted effort to reach out to people with similar values, habits, and preferences, then nurture those relationships. Focus on identifying common bonds, shared interests, and experiences. For example, a colleague of mine who doesn’t drink alcohol as a personal choice always bonds with me when we attend parties where alcohol is served. And one of my clients, Ruby, shared how she found it hard to relate to people who didn’t belong to her social group but found a lot more in common with them after she became a parent. Sharing interests or being in specific phases in life enable more meaningful relationships.
Once your coworkers get to know you, the barriers of stereotype and bias will start to dissolve. We have far more in common than we allow ourselves to believe. People, irrespective of race, skin color, or any other distinguishing characteristics, often share unifying hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations that can form a unique bond. You could even consider starting your own group or join an existing staff network based on shared interests and hobbies, which can expand your social circle beyond those exactly like you.
Universally, women, especially women of color, have experienced deep-rooted systemic challenges that have hindered our career success. The system imposes many barriers on us and should better support our advancement by design. But we also have to be resourceful and claim control in defying the overwhelming odds working against us. Sometimes we must remind ourselves how the ability to rise above challenges and defy stereotypes lies within us and that it’s time to take back the power to do so.
* Names have been changed throughout for privacy.