We weren’t particularly close, so I was pleasantly surprised when my colleague greeted me so warmly when we ran into each other outside the hotel. We hugged and then proceeded to weave our way through the streets of London to the event we were both attending, making small talk about the weather and our plans for the evening. It was only when we prepared to part ways at the entrance of the venue that I realized she had no idea who I was. She had confused me for another black woman who worked in a different department in a different city.
In that brief moment between realizing she didn’t actually know who I was and saying goodbye exists one of the crude realities of what it feels like to be a woman of color at work in this country. Part of me was annoyed that she couldn’t differentiate between the two of us; another part of me didn’t want to embarrass her by correcting the mistake she had made. Being black and female in the workplace means constantly having to walk a tightrope, balancing your own emotions with the perceptions and intentions of others, making everyone feel comfortable, instead of nervous, in the process.
When I first started working in corporate America, I was surprised by a lot of things: the volume of back-to-back meetings, the complicated team dynamics, fluctuating office temperatures. But the thing that surprised me the most and what continues to shake me to my core is how few women there are who look like me.
In the office, we’re not really supposed to think about race, unless it’s part of our job description. But for black women, that’s almost impossible. Being black is a core part of our identity, and it colors the way we see the world and the way the world sees us. I have had a colleague make jokes on my behalf about eating fried chicken for lunch (I’m a pescatarian); I have had to answer questions about my background in professional settings — not as small talk, but to explain why I deserve to be in the room in the first place. Being black and female at work means navigating insensitivities with dignity and assuming that most people are not ill-intentioned.
But in the same way that I can’t tell whether a coworker's performance is affected by a family member’s illness or a spouse’s unemployment, it’s impossible for those around me to know how race affects the person I bring to work every day.
Over the past couple of years, the public conversation has shifted when it comes to the challenges facing women and minorities. We can talk more openly about the gender pay gap and diversity quotas. But what we have perhaps missed are all the intangibles that make it so difficult for black women to succeed in corporate America — if they can get there in the first place.
Black women make up just 7 percent of the overall workforce in S&P 500 companies compared to white women, who make up 27 percent. On November 6, 2016, a list of the “50 Indispensable Executives in Marketing, Media, and Tech” by Adweek included just one black woman. As of September 25, 2016, only 13 black women ever had raised over $1 million in venture-capital funding for their companies. Compare that to the $15 billion invested by venture-capital firms in the second quarter of 2016.
There is an indisputable volume issue with the number of black women in the pipeline, but, beyond that, black women who are in corporate America usually don’t have the resources to navigate the race and gender dynamics that inevitably appear in the workplace. Race creates a divide that most of us wish didn’t exist, especially from nine-to-five. So, rather than talk about it, we try to ignore it.