As a black woman in the working world, confidence is often a challenging concept to master. We don’t know how to assert ourselves without being perceived as arrogant, or we don’t assert ourselves enough and come of “stand offish.” It’s a struggle we all face as we climb our professional ladders surrounded by peers who don’t necessarily understand us, but pretend they do.
So what is the secret to owning your working space, but doing so in a way that is conducive to your identity and position? SheUnplugged spoke to two working black women in England for advice on how they navigate the working world. Deji is a doctor who works for Britain’s National Health Service (The NHS), and Fatima is an engineer who works with a top, global engineering firm.
“There is no special rule for black women. I don’t believe in seeing yourself as a black woman in the workplace. You’re a human being first, so act like it. Be decent, be kind, be respectful. Rather than focusing on your race or your gender, focus on others.
Smile at people – be that person that brightens people’s day – but don’t be afraid to say no when needed. Don’t be lazy at work. Be diligent. Your actions will speak for themselves. Do nice things for colleagues, not expecting praise. Do not chase being liked by your boss: it will only stress you out. Hopefully, your diligence and hard work will impress your boss. Be confident – not brazen. Don’t rise to every irritation at work, and don’t be too serious all the time. Have a laugh with your colleagues. But -most importantly – know the cleaners’ names. They run the place!”
“The most important thing is to always carry yourself with confidence, whether you feel confident or not. Don’t feel too conscious about people’s unconscious bias, because, most times, they don’t mean to be hurtful. If I paid attention to all the stereotypes people associated with me, I would habitually dress ultra-conservatively to work for fear of being seen as the overly-sexual black woman.
Speak up if you feel as though you are being treated differently, for instance, I had a black female friend who had to speak up about being passed up for promotions. Work hard, and don’t be afraid to go for promotions and high positions. Do not limit yourself because of your race or your gender. Yes, in some workplaces, they will choose the man over you, but don’t give up. You must definitely avoid falling into the trap of making the coffee for co-workers, especially male co-workers, just because you are a woman.
Finally, don’t give up your ethnic identity. Don’t give up who you are, trying to be white, and giving up your identity and culture for acceptance. Remember the words of Malcolm X: ‘you cannot hate the roots of a tree without hating the tree.’”