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The Magic and Mundane of Being a Black Woman In The Workplace

Shonda Smith

These five words – Black Women In The Workplace – speak volumes. There’s a magic and rhythm to these words that evoke the shared head-nod or eye-roll – or better yet, that knowing smile of shared experience, struggle, and hard-fought victory. There’s also a heaviness associated with the thought of Black women in the workplace, a proverbial weight we often carry whether we are in the non-profit, for-profit, or self-employed arenas.


Recently, I joined Riley's Way Foundation, a national nonprofit that empowers young changemakers to take action and transform their communities by leaning on the values of kindness, empathy, inclusivity, and youth leadership. I joined the organization as its first-ever Communications Director,


Before Riley’s Way, I worked for several small and large mission-driven organizations. And regardless of where I was, my role as a Black woman in the workplace would inevitably come into play. How could it not? In a country stolen from Indigenous people and built on the backs of Africans who were taken from their own homelands and forced into slavery, there’s an ingrained trauma passed down from generation to generation. That trauma doesn’t just go away when we enter office doors, connect via Zoom meetings, or pass by corporate cubicles. It finds itself in the workplace, in ways both obvious and insidious.


In the opening sentence of the article, how corporate America’s diversity initiatives continue to fail Black women, author Courtney Connley writes, “Being a woman in corporate America comes with its fair share of challenges, often facing gender discrimination and bias in the workplace. But, if you’re a Black woman, or woman of color, these gender-based challenges are often compounded by obstacles of racism, making it even harder to navigate your way to the top.”


The trauma is there when battling with whether we as Black women can bring our full selves to work. Will our natural hair have to be defended, explained, or non-consensually touched? Will we have to navigate being the "first" or "only" in our roles? Will we have to bear the tried-and-true journey of working twice as hard, for half the pay?


More than likely, if you are a Black woman, you’ve grappled with these questions yourself or know someone in your circle who has. I’ve always tried to be unapologetic and embracing about all that my being a Black woman entails but standing up to the ever-pervasive system of white privilege rooted in this country’s history of systemic racism can be just plain exhausting.


Years ago, while working with a former employer, I was asked to join a meeting to determine whether our organization should partner with a then young and up-and-upcoming magazine. As was sometimes the case at this particular job, I was the only Black person in the room. I was happy to have a seat at the table, but to me, having a seat came with added responsibility. I felt like it was my unspoken but understood duty to do my people right. I told the publishers of the magazine, a start-up publication headquartered in the South, that while I was open to a partnership, I needed to see images in the magazine that looked like me: a Black woman.


Notably, on their part, the response was welcoming. In their overwhelmingly white worlds, they had never considered including images of anyone other than size 2, blonde-haired women. In the end, the organization not only forged a partnership with the magazine, but we also went on to work closely together on several successful ventures.


In thinking of some of these scenarios, I spoke with some Black women in their mid and senior-level careers to get their perspectives on what it meant to be a Black woman in the workplace.


Sharon Dawson of Washingtonville, New York is a Senior Staff Accountant who’s spent more than a decade working in the computer technology field. In her role, she provides technical guidance on complex financial offerings.


As a no-nonsense professional who goes above and beyond, Sharon is dedicated, highly skilled, and knowledgeable about her industry. She shared, “being a Black woman, and knowing society’s perception of Black people, has caused me to develop a strong work ethic, and develop the necessary skills to produce quality work that would be difficult to criticize.”


Sharon also shared that while she sometimes feels dismissed and overlooked in the workplace, overall she feels she garners respect from her peers: “As a Black woman, you are prepared to handle many obstacles.”


Alongside feeling valued in the workplace is the topic of compensation. According to an article in BlackGirlNerds by Archuleta Chisolm, “Black women still trail behind their white female and male co-workers in terms of wages and employment outcomes.”


Rachel Jones* (pseudonym*) of Washington, DC is a Senior Business Manager with the federal government, where she manages billings for lease and federal real estate transactions throughout the DC-Maryland-Virginia region. When it comes to the topic of Black women in the workplace, Rachel, who’s been in her industry for 25 years, minced no words: “Is it February or March when the spotlight series is happening? Those moments are fine, but let's get to the real issue. Are we being paid or receiving timely promotions? Once you mention race it seems like the air gets sucked out of the room.”


Rachel shares that while she was sometimes praised for her work ethic, the admiration did not align with annual review ratings: “I often did not receive promotions nor was I given the opportunity to pursue other interests.”


The reality is that the topic of being underpaid and undervalued is all too familiar to so many Black women.


Sharon shared, “I think being a Black woman has adversely impacted my role in the workplace in that I have been granted few promotional opportunities, and have been subject to inequity in compensation. Also, I was not given the proper credit for quality work. Additionally, statements made by me in group discussions are not always attributed to me.”


Nina Spain of Inglewood, California is an Anti-Money Laundering Analyst. In her position, she acts as the first line of defense to protect an investment firm or bank from fraud and money laundering, a field in which she’s spent almost two decades. When asked to describe what comes to mind when she thinks of Black women in the workplace, Nina answered, “hardworking, educated, intelligent, classy, and sophisticated Black women struggling to feel comfortable and safe enough to be their authentic selves while trying to climb the corporate ladder and be accepted by peers.”


When asked about the role salary has played in her life as a Black woman, Nina said, “the true colors of people eventually show, especially for those who feel they're in competition with me as a Black woman or when I ask for a higher salary to match what I feel I'm worth.”


However, no matter what, Nina encourages women who may be earlier in their career journeys to “stay true to yourself, stay focused on your goals, and know that you will have to fight to achieve your goals. Don't ever give up because you deserve whatever your heart desires.”


Sharon also offered wisdom on the importance of staying on top of your game, mainly by being inquisitive and assertive: “Continually educate yourself. Take advantage of any education programs your company offers. Develop new skills. Get a sponsor, someone to advocate for you. Get a mentor, not necessarily someone of your race or ethnicity. Join or start a Black women’s group or organization to have discussions and support one another. Be assertive. Who cares if others say you are aggressive. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”


According to Rachel, the importance of networking with other Black women cannot be understated: “I have met other Black women who’ve given me great advice on the necessary steps to pursue promotions. It feels good to be in an environment where there’s a collective group of women rooting for you and who understand some of the pitfalls to avoid being typecast at work.”


Rachel shared: ”Never be stagnant in your career and have a trusted colleague that will motivate you to seek new opportunities throughout your career. Take the ‘S’ off your chest and delegate tasks when needed. Real networking happens outside of the office. Plan to attend at least one event. If they’re offering paid training or certifications, take it. Do not be timid and become familiar with HR or union policies and never suffer in silence.”


The tips Sharon, Rachel, and Nina shared with regard to their journeys in the professional world are invaluable. Below is a summary of some of these tips:


Tips for Black Women in the Workplace


  • Stay true to yourself. Be authentic, be you. Black women don’t have to be superwomen and should not be deemed less than their non-Black peers. Find ways to let your genuine light shine without depleting your energy.

  • Find joy in your work as much as possible. And if that joy consistently eludes you in your work environment, it may be time to move on.

  • Find a healthy work/life balance. It’s important to take your vacation days and enjoy a work/life balance. Taking healthy steps now will make a lasting difference in your mental and physical well-being in the long run.

  • Do your market research and ask for the salary or promotion you know you deserve. We all know the saying that “closed mouths don’t get fed.” While it can be intimidating for anyone to ask for a promotion or a raise you believe you deserve, the likelihood of getting noticed or compensated for your work by staying quiet is slim to none. Research, study, and practice your pitch for a promotion or salary request among a trusted group of peers. Then, speak up.

  • Be in the moment. Know that you are where you are in the workplace for a reason. Seek out opportunities and take full advantage of your personal growth and development. Regardless of where you are in your professional journey, there is always something new to learn.

  • Find – and build – your network! There's nothing like finding others who will be by your side through the triumphs and challenges of the professional setting. Finding a network can introduce you to the many avenues you can take on your ongoing journey to professional success. Along with mentors, find sponsors who look like you, and even those who do not. The pool from which you can learn is long and wide – dive in and grow into the very best version of yourself.


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