When I first started working in the early 1990s, it seemed like everyone who was in a position of power was the opposite of me: they were older, they were male, and they were white. Luckily, over the past 20 years, the demographics of those in charge have begun to shift. As an interview candidate in the workforce now, I've noticed that more than ever, hiring managers are often women, and at times, they're from an ethnically diverse background.
As a woman of color myself, I can’t help but notice subtleties that some white candidates may overlook. Here’s what it’s like to go on interviews when you’re a woman of color:
I’m a 5’2” Asian woman who looks much younger than I am. There have been many instances when I have felt like I had to work hard during the interview to prove my expertise and work experience. I think that the combination of being short and looking young has worked against me. It’s a delicate balance, because during interviews, it’s critical to come across as capable without seeming cocky.
Moreover, the stereotype that Asians are a "model minority" is highly inaccurate and can work against us. This label suggests that we are the types who will keep our heads down, get the work done, and not necessarily speak our minds.
Through the years, I've learned to be extremely perceptive and to carefully read the interviewer's reaction to how I answered questions about my accomplishments and expertise. In addition to artfully sharing my credentials and experience through examples, I have had to gauge if I seemed to be coming across as smug and complacent, or not confident enough. I've often left interviews feeling emotionally and mentally drained.
Throughout my career, as I've interviewed with many companies (both Fortune 100 and smaller companies), I have always been hyper-aware of the individuals who were on my interview panel. Often, I have been the only person of color, and often, everyone I interviewed with at a given company was white. I've regularly wondered whether I would fit in with the organization's culture because I did not see very many people like me in the office.
In 2005, the Center for Work-Life Policy published a Harvard Business Review article summarizing their study on how to cultivate the best performance from minority executives. The article provided anecdotes from minority executives who expressed feeling stifled at the workplace, and as a result, withholding their full potential. In addition, the minority executives intentionally made their personal lives “invisible” to their colleagues and managers because they would rather blend in than be negatively stereotyped for their personal endeavors.
In my career in corporate America, I have felt this weight on shoulders at times. I have often been concerned with how well I blend in and sometimes have not felt included. On many occasions, having this concern from the beginning of the interview process made me feel less enthusiastic about a job opportunity because I felt as though it would be an uphill battle.
Today, I write this article from an introspective position. In hindsight, the issues I point out here seem clear to me now, but at the time, as I was going through the interview process, I wish I would have had this clarity. Instead of being apprehensive, I may have taken on an opportunity because the environment was more inclusive. Or I may have declined an opportunity because I was never going to "fit in" no matter how hard I tried. Either way, I've learned from my experiences and am even more grateful that I am able to share this with you. I hope that by reading this, you will gain more insight into yourselves and how you might change your mindset about interviewing as a woman of color. And for those who are interviewing people of color, you may think about being more empathetic toward the interviewee.
Yon Na is a leadership and organization development professional with 20 years of corporate experience. She has worked with some of the most admired companies on the planet: Warner Bros. Entertainment, The New York Times, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson. As a leadership development professional, Yon has helped hundreds of individuals fine-tune their unique talents through coaching and facilitating workshops. To learn more, please visit https://yonnaphd.com