“Someone at work implied I only got this great job because I’m a ’diversity hire.’ What should I do?” I was asked this question recently after I spoke on a panel about gender equality for women in science. The woman who posed the question was a research scientist at a prestigious university. “I’ve been subtly told by a peer that I probably got this coveted job because I checked two diversity boxes; female and Hispanic,” she explained. “It’s making me doubt myself even though I have a PhD.”
I was stumped. I’ve often been the only woman of color in most teams I’ve worked in around the world. And I’ve certainly felt isolated for being so, despite rationalizing that I had the qualifications and experience to be there. Back then, I used to brush these feelings under the carpet; grateful for the opportunity. But as I started speaking with more women, especially women of color, I found that most had encountered peers who subtly or overtly implied their gender and/or race had resulted in a positive hire. For many, these feelings caused self-doubt, anxiety and in one case, depression.
So I searched for expert advice from Gracie Johnson-Lopez, president of Diversity & HR Solutions, who trains companies on cultural competence. She has also faced similar struggles in her own career: “I understood as a young black woman that oppression would be an inevitable part of my life but that I did not have to be defined by the mistreatment nor misperception of others.” While she emphasizes that it’s not the woman of color’s responsibility to manage the biases and perceptions of others , women in this situation must remember that no savvy business would hire a candidate who wasn’t qualified for a job. It’s simply too expensive a mistake.
She recommends a five-pronged strategy on how to manage patronizing comments:
- Concentrate on what you bring to the table: Focus on what you share with your colleagues, rather than how you differ. “Race and gender are just one aspect of who we are,” she says. Reach out to people, have conversations and be open with what you care about. Finding commonalities with your colleagues over shared interests can help you feel more connected.
- Tap into your network: ”When working in very challenging environments, talk to someone who is trained to handle such situations with confidentiality, tact and fairness for all concerned,” she advises. Develop informal social support networks made up of people who can offer insight into the workplace issues you are facing.
- Don’t ignore your instincts: It’s important to understand the impact of these indicators too, she cautions. “The feelings of hopelessness, mistrust, despair and alienation common among people facing bias don’t stop at the end of the workday,” she says. “Stress and depression don’t just affect employees at work but also at home among family, friends and loved ones.” If you continue to feel marginalized, it’s worth engaging HR to discuss or file a formal complaint.
- Keep a record: Johnson-Lopez recommends keeping a detailed log of events in case you decide to file a complaint. Being able to report specifics can also help the company understand whether to address it with certain individuals, or whether lack of inclusiveness is a company-wide issue.
- Know yourself: Above everything else, “Know yourself and refuse to be shamed or to carry the burdens of others’ stereotypes,” she says. “Maintain your dignity, integrity, confidence and keep an open heart.”
Johnson-Lopez recommends that employers, too, should understand the negative impact on their business when employees of color feel discriminated.
Unfairness in the workplace costs U.S. employers at least $64 billion annually , according to research from the Corporate Leavers Survey. The study found that annually, over 2 million professionals in the U.S. voluntarily leave their jobs solely because of unfairness. Compared with heterosexual, Caucasian men, employees of color are three times more likely to leave solely because they felt they were treated unfairly.
“Don’t make minority women feel like their only contribution to the organization is their skin color or their representation of a minority group ,” she emphasizes. “Encourage their involvement on committees or in decision-making groups based on their interests and strengths, not their diversity.”
Ruchika Tulshyan is the author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace (Forbes, 2015). Connect with her on Twitter.
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