Imagine you’re having lunch with your boss on your first day in a new job. They tilt their head at you, perplexed. “But if you’re from Singapore,” they say. “How do you speak English without an accent?”
Many of you don’t have to imagine such a scenario — you can remember it like it was yesterday! (Unfortunately, it happens often enough.)
There you are, bringing your experience, creativity and passion to a new role, and in a snap you’re reduced to your race, ethnicity, or gender.
The perils of “speaking while female” exist for all women. And while I could never claim to speak for every woman of color, my research over nearly a decade confirms that there's a marked difference between speaking as a white woman versus as a woman of color.
The unique challenges of “working as a woman of color” have become better-documented in recent years. And if you need a refresher, look no further than this headline: Some Black women feel safer working from home and are opting out of office life to escape workplace racism. Enough said.
The Unintended Upside of Speaking Up As a Woman of Color
But it’s not all doom-and-gloom. Sometimes speaking up as a woman of color can propel your career forward, and cultivate powerful relationships.
I interviewed Michelle Y. Talbert in 2015, when she was one of three attorneys of color at her firm. One white male partner who she worked with most closely was "notoriously belligerent, however very smart."
When Talbert, a Black woman, was publicly grilled by him in a meeting, she came prepared, didn't back down, and "did not show any aggression in response to his histrionics."
It worked in her favor – Talbert enjoyed an "amazingly collegial mentor/mentee relationship" with the partner thereafter, and other attorneys respected her for making it through the wringer.
To be clear, Dr. Ashleigh Shelby Rosette's research confirms that some Black women leaders are regarded positively when they display agentic behaviors like Talbert did, but concludes that the overall impact of bias against Black women supersedes these slight positive gains.
We still need to focus on creating inclusive environments, especially for women of color.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In my next Inclusion Is Leadership, I’m sharing where we go from here, including practical responses so you have a “ready comeback” when you hear aggressive comments about your appearance, hair, accent, and more.
No, you shouldn’t have to be prepared, but here we are.
What have you heard after “speaking as a woman of color at work”?
Have you gotten positive feedback, like Michelle Talbert did?