There’s no doubt that women in the workplace have historically faced significant challenges, be it low pay, lack of advancement, or fewer promotions, compared with their male counterparts. But when you factor in being a woman of colour at work, climbing up the career ladder can be, and often is, significantly more challenging. Recent research from the University of California's Centre of Worklife Law, for one, found that WoC are more often asked with "office housework," consequently hindering their opportunities to be promoted. Or hijab-wearing European Muslim women face being passed over for jobs if they don't comply with an employers request to remove it, something the European Court of Justice ruled in 2017 "does not constitute direct discrimination."
Such structural inequalities are challenging for WoC to navigate, though the more prominent dialogue around these issues is helping. A number of industries are embracing the need for a more diverse workforce. Take Adobe's recent survey, which found that 87 percent of respondents in the advertising industry agreed that “a diverse workforce should be a priority for the creative industry,” with 44 percent of millennials agreeing that it was a “significant priority.”
Meanwhile, the likes of community-led platforms The Other Box and Project Noir provide a much-needed support network for people of colour navigating the creative industries. Driverse, launching in late 2018, will be the world’s first workplace review website for under-represented communities, including PoC, LGBTQ+ individuals, women, those with disabilities and all the intersections of these.
But barriers faced by WOC still persist — one in four professional female job seekers with "ethnic" sounding names in the UK have changed their names to sound more "British," a study by Nottx.com found. And back in 2016, as the BBC reports, the Women and Equalities Committee found that Muslim women were three times more likely to be out of a job and looking for one than the average British woman.
When wearing a headscarf could decrease a Muslim’s chance of being hired, for one, is the workforce then as progressive as it might seem on the surface? To find out, I asked six women of colour about their experiences navigating the modern workforce, from the perils of securing a job to the microaggressions they experienced once there. While they’re in no way fully representative of all WoC, it’s clear that a workplace can only claim it’s fully inclusive if it reflects a modern workforce. Here's what they had to say.
Daniella, 25, Receptionist
“I have to speak at a higher pitch so I don’t sound ‘street’.”
"As a black woman, colleagues stereotype me before I even speak. Firstly, they look at my hair. My natural hair is deemed 'unprofessional' in the corporate world so I’m limited in how I can express myself. I’ve stuck with the same hairstyle of short twisted braids for the past two years as it's neat, tidy, not too big, and doesn't make me look 'threatening.' One time, I came to work with my afro on a Friday. I was extremely nervous of the reactions I’d get from my boss and colleagues. As expected, I was the talk of the office. White colleagues wanted to touch my hair and some people said I should try 'straightening' my hair. This went on throughout the duration of my shift. A Caucasian woman, though, can come in with highlights, a trim, or dye her hair a completely different colour and no one gives her grief about it.
"How I speak also comes under fire. We have clients from major companies and they predominantly have Southern accents. I grew up in South London. I have to speak at a higher pitch in order to not sound threatening or too 'ghetto' or 'street.' I sometimes slip up and talk at my normal pitch and I can see their faces twitch with fear. When I had a cold and lost my voice, someone complained that I had an attitude and my boss had to have a talk with me.
"I’m the only black person (man or woman) in the entire workplace. I have no one to identify with when it comes to culture (I'm Caribbean). I need someone who can relate to being black, someone who can discuss black TV shows, talk slang and say phrases like "man's not hot" and know what that means. In my ideal world, there’d be more than one person of colour hired at a time. It's only when I get home or around friends and family do I feel like Daniella."
Dani*, 33, Advertising Senior Account Manager
“I would never reveal my full name as it sounds ‘foreign’.”
"Most of my colleagues don’t know that I’m a practising Muslim. I don’t drink alcohol so find myself constantly having to make excuses not to join after work drinks. It’s a lot less effort to decline and say I’m not drinking tonight. It stems from not wanting to be different, not wanting to make people feel awkward, and not wanting them to think 'oh that’s why she’s like that — she’s Muslim.' I also think revealing my faith might hamper my career progression. It might make them feel, 'surely if she thinks like that, how can she be a good fit with us?'
"I’ve not observed Ramadan in the workplace as I fear being judged and ostracised. There was once three Muslim men fasting out of 100 staff. My team would talk about them pityingly and made Islam sound barbaric for not even allowing water during the fast. Some friends at a different company complained to me about their colleagues’ bad breath and suggested they were stupid for fasting during summer. Deep down, if I was an in environment where I could fast, I definitely would. When I worked in Dubai and Malaysia, we could come in and leave early and there was no lunch hour.
"I’ve also adopted an anglicised pronunciation of my name since I was young. I would never reveal my full name as it sounds very Islamic and ‘foreign.’ I suspect that it would 100 percent negatively affect my job search and interview opportunities. [That definitely played a role when] I named my son Aidan so that he wouldn’t have to deal with internalised prejudice [like I did].
"When I was younger, I used to wear coloured contacts and lighten my hair to look more Caucasian. Even though I no longer do this, I find that in the workplace, the less ‘different’ you appear to be, the more accepted you are."
Amina, 20, Marketing Assistant and Freelance Writer
“Watering down my faith is my best shot at climbing the career ladder.”
"I feel that Muslims like myself have had to feel that watering down their faith in the workplace is their best shot at climbing up their career ladder. It’s a shame but not that surprising. As a woman of colour, it's already difficult enough to navigate the workplace, let alone being visibly Muslim too.
"Things like taking a prayer break for 10 minutes, eating halal food or fasting at work is seen as ‘too religious.’ There’ve been times where I’ve lied and said that I needed the toilet whenever I’ve had to pray as I often receive the odd look or comment. Instead, I’ve dashed to the nearest storage room, hoping that no one would need any equipment for the next few minutes. It felt like it lasted hours in what shouldn’t be a nerve-wracking situation. I remember one time when I was praying in there, a fellow colleague kept muttering loud enough for me that I should just 'bloody pray all of it at home.' I felt crushed while I was in sujood (prayer position) and completely lost focus. Walking out of that room was so awkward and I couldn't even bring myself to say anything.
"From then on, I started to plan my prayer schedules and would delay taking my lunch as that's when most people would be out of the office. It’s not my [colleagues] I’m angry at but structural barriers that hold back women like me. Do I believe that things would have been different if I had compromised my faith to fit in? Probably. I’m glad I was confident in myself before starting out though."
Zeynep*, 25, Business Co-Ordinator
“I’ve given up on speaking up about racist jokes.”
"I work for a small, family-run business and all members of staff are from a white-British background. I’m of a Turkish-Cypriot background and the only POC. The company has a large turnaround of out-of-office temporary staff and the majority are POC. They’re always subjected to racial ‘banter’, with permanent staff giving them nicknames like ‘Terry’ for terrorist and mocking their accents over the phone. When racist jokes are thrown carelessly around the office, they quite often have no regard for how this might affect me. Most of them apply to my family, especially when accents are made fun of.
"[For the most part], I’ve given up on speaking out about it. One ‘joke’ that still [affects] me happened this summer. I mentioned that I would be going to Black Pride with my girlfriend and one of the permanent members of staff mentioned that the early Pride finish (9 p.m.) was good as 'black people had curfews and they wouldn’t rob stuff.' All I could do was stare at him and say ‘that’s not funny.’ It makes me feel ashamed to work here.
"I’ve also shortened my name to make it easier for everyone and so I don’t have to repeat it a hundred times. Recently, I appeared on a TV game show where I used my full name as I knew my family from Cyprus would be watching. After I appeared on the show, I mentioned to my colleagues I’d had a lot of tweets making fun of my name. One said that I should have used my nickname and that my name shouldn’t exist as it’s too ‘difficult’ to pronounce.
"What I find very disappointing is that I started working here due to my workplace’s advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights. Both the founders are gay and support Pride. But it seems like I can’t have the best of both worlds. It’s either I have to hide my same-sex relationship because of my Turkish-Cypriot heritage or to [dilute] my heritage to be accepted as a queer woman at work."
Eva*, 24, Sales Assistant
“One time, a colleague lifted my braids up.”
"I work for a cosmetics brand. As a black woman, I can feel very ‘othered.’ One time on the shop floor, two white colleagues were discussing one of our colleagues. Out of nowhere, she said she was 'pretty for a black girl.' Another colleague intervened and confronted her but she said that it was a compliment. I was shocked — the incident caught me completely off guard. How is a black girl listening to this conversation [supposed to feel?]. No one says 'you’re pretty for a white girl.' It’s irritating because we’re always being judged by European standards and it’s not the only beauty standard there is.
"Another time, a colleague lifted my braids up. She claimed she’d never seen a black person with braids before and was trying to understand how they were attached. She then asked if it was a wig. It was a very violating experience and I told her not to touch me again without permission. I’m not to be poked and prodded at. I understand being curious but there’s a very fine line.
"It’s extremely exhausting navigating these micro-aggressions. It’s worrying that I don’t know if I can even report this to my management as they might say it’s all in my head or that I’m making it up. One time I mentioned a separate incident to my white male manager and all he did was nod his head. He didn’t even look into it."
Jess, 31, Marketing Manager
“I was patted on the head like a dog.”
"I’m black (of Ghanaian descent) and British. I moved to Amsterdam in March 2016. It started off as good as it gets: I’d landed a job at a well-respected creative agency. I thought that after all these years, I’d finally got my 'in.'
"It didn’t take long for it to turn to hell. The premise is that Amsterdam positions itself as one of, if not, the world’s most progressive and accepting cities. Which it is… if you’re white. On numerous occasions, I was pulled into meetings as a token because clients had explicitly requested diverse teams. In these meetings, I was assigned no role whatsoever and when I questioned this, I was told I didn’t need one. It was dehumanising. I was also quite conflicted too. Do I call them out? Or would I be perceived as not being a team player? It made me question my value in the company and whether or not I was any good at my job. Was I just there to tick a box?
"When I raised the need for my agency to focus more efforts on diversity and inclusion, the MD told me it was down to me to make it happen because 'I’m the black one.' Why should I alone bear that burden? From having someone pet me on the head like a dog to another accusing me of being aggressive when I addressed micro-aggressions, it was a minefield.
"I lasted two years there. My advice? Ahead of [moving abroad], seek out communities who you’ll identify with and can become your support system. Luckily, I found this in the Facebook group 'Amsterdam Black Women.' In Amsterdam, people seem to be quite happy to live under this façade of progressiveness. Just take Zwarte Piet (the annual practice of white people blackening their faces), which is still going strong. Comparatively, in the UK, there’s quite an honest conversation, often led by POC about how far we still have to go. That’s not to say the UK doesn’t have any problems. It just pretends less."
* Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Some names have been changed.