Frenemies? Women of Color & Corporate America

Multi-racial business team sitting around an office boardroomCorporate America is a very interesting place. In many respects, it represents opportunity, growth, and possibility. But, since it has always been an environment dominated by “good old boys” and mainstream American ideals, it has not necessarily been the most welcoming place for women of color. In many respects, the very crooked rooms that these women seek to escape in their daily lives are emboldened in the corporate realm, but opportunities for career growth still make mainstream industry very appealing for women of color.

In essence, corporate America has become the “frenemy” of women of color: sometimes friend, sometimes enemy. But, understanding oneself better, being uncompromising with one’s values and ideals, and understanding that every situation is not an always situation helps to mitigate some of these contradicting aspects of a central institution to America’s core capitalistic culture.

Natural Hair and its “Social Statement” Making Power

One of the key issues which arises over and over again about women of color in the workplace, especially black women, is hair. How one’s hair looks, whether or not it is straight, should it be braided, etc. These are all considerations in the internal conversation each woman has with herself when preparing for the workplace. But, for women of color, these questions become especially important because of the stigmas associated with naturally textured and other non-mainstream hair types.

I remember once in my corporate career, I had an older white male explain to me that “back when he first hired in, they didn’t allow cornrolls like those,” he said while pointing at my plaited hair style. “They made Africans like you work in the back.” Stricken by his obvious ignorance and smacking insensitivity to cultural differences, I immediately felt like the “other.” I felt like my “cornrolls” or cornrows as I would typically term them, had just separated me from my counterpart. And, my years of technical training at a top university could do nothing in the face of this old timey recognition of my appearance and race.

These types of experiences are not uncommon. In actuality, they happen quite frequently for women of color. And they don’t just happen by chance. There is an unspoken notion in corporate America that textured, curly, or kinky hair is “unprofessional.” And, somehow, having a textured or natural hairstyle makes women of color more militant and less…well…white.

The Work Ethic Question

Aside from the hair conversation, there is always the work ethic question. From years and years passed of misnomers and stereotypes about people of color, particularly black people, there is an image in the crooked room which asserts that folks in this community seek to mooch off of the efforts of others and perform in generally lazy capacities, never truly earning their keep. And, sadly, even after all of the numerous accomplishments and accolades we have garnered over the years, black women continue to struggle immensely with these labels. In some cases, this form of misrecognition in the crooked room of corporate America causes these women to question their own self-worth.

Because of this, black women are leaving corporate America in droves. The Huffington Post published a piece a few years ago explaining that “black women are leaving corporate America and starting their own businesses at three-to-five times the rate of all businesses. Today, some 1.9 million firms are majority-owned (51% or more) by women of color in the U.S. and these ladies employ 1.2 million people and generate $165 billion in revenues annually, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research.” And why are they leaving? Because they often do not feel as though they are receiving equitable reward and return for the amount of work, commitment, and risk they are taking in their roles.

So, with the recent downturn in the economy, mass layoffs across private industry, and an overall movement away from diversity and toward the bottom line, what might these statistics say today? The permutations are frightening. But, one thing is for sure. The narrative is certainly not good. And, if women of color continue to face these types of struggles in corporate America, it could have devastating effects on communities of color.

What is the Fix?

Let’s be clear here: some women of color have found immense success in corporate America. Most notably, Ursula Burns is the first black woman to reach the CEO level of a Fortune 500 company, Xerox. Named CEO in 2009, Burns is a shining example of how perseverance and dedication to a goal can truly pay off in the end. In her case, corporate America has been a friend. And seemingly, its enemy status was held at bay to a great enough deal for her to become CEO and Chairman in 2010.

However, for many women of color, this is not their story. Should women of color, knowing this information, conform to the American ideal of appearance, behavior, and character in order to have a greater chance of success? Or, should they strive to be the best version of themselves they can possibly be?

I have chosen the latter. When presented with companies that did not necessarily align with my personal ideals or expectations regarding diversity, I simply moved on. Obviously, there is some vetting involved here. Companies should be given the opportunity to correct any inappropriate treatment before this type of decision is made. But, there is no sense in staying at a company whose goals are in direct discord with your own. And, while some women find themselves relegated to certain positions or roles, there are certainly means for the brave to find a better fit somewhere else. But simply waiting around for the company to change will get them nowhere.

Additionally, women of color have to be willing to take the risks that will pave the way for equality for women who arrive after them. My natural hair in the workplace could make it that much easier for another young woman who starts her career tomorrow. And, the courage to represent oneself truly and authentically must outweigh the inadequate assertions of an ignorant majority.

Lastly, I find that just knowing can sometimes make all the difference. It wasn’t until I read a book that I understood the stereotypes which had been made about my race and gender. And, for women of color, we don’t always know why we feel different in corporate America. Seeking partnerships with others of similar backgrounds and experiences helps to alleviate some of the anxiety associated with being the only different one at work.

In the end, each woman has to decide if corporate America is the place for her. For some, it is an easy decision. For others, it could be much harder. In either case, the key is knowing one’s worth and then living it. Where ever that takes us, it’s got to be the right place.

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