When it comes to the idea of dealing with sexism in the workplace I think back to the time I heard a very powerful white woman in news discuss the topic during a work meeting.
Someone in the room asked her how she would deal with gender discrimination. She gave one simple response: In life, you have to choose your battles.
I was slightly taken aback, because as we know, issues concerning gender equality in the workplace have become even more of a hot topic in the past few years among women in powerful positions. From award show stages, to YouTube videos, to photo series, many heavyweights in Hollywood and media are discussing gender equality. But considering this powerful woman’s professional stature, her response made perfect sense. She didn’t become a big name in the cutthroat world of television news by running to human resources each time she felt wronged by a male colleague or the organization in general.
For most black women the idea of “choosing your battles” is commonplace. In fact, we have mastered this approach to either get ahead or simply maintain employment. Yet, there are times when being silent just isn’t an option. While sexism at work is a weighty issue, for black women, racism and invisibility are the cherry on top.
“It’s kind of like knowing when to speak, and when not to. Also, when to remain invisible because it does have it’s super power possibilities if you learn how to use your invisibility to your advantage,” said Dr. Sonia Banks, Licensed Clinical Psychologist. “Also speaking up may put you on the map in ways you don’t intend and yet it’s the only way to hear your own voice—to sometimes say it out loud and to hear your voice come back to you.”
So how do you present the issue of discrimination at work without being paralyzed by the fear of being ostracized or dismissed emotionally or physically? Dr. Banks says there are a few steps every woman should consider.
– Figure out if you’re in a safe environment – According to Dr. Banks you should be able to answer yes to several questions. “Are there enough legal infrastructures? Is there a human resources department? Is there a publicized document on the equal employment opportunity laws like sexual harassment and discrimination? Do I have the backing of the law in case this simple comment I want to make or statement I want to respond to gets taken out of context?” she said.
– Find support – Determine who you can talk to at work about how you’re feeling. You could also use this as an opportunity to see if other female colleagues feel the same way. Your community outside of work like friends, family, and mentors could also be a great support.
– “The third thing you want to do is decide how you want the outcome of this courageous conversation to go,” said Banks. “You don’t want to go into that meeting with nothing. You want to have some notes on a piece of paper, what you want to say.”
Frame the conversation by first acknowledging the work relationship you have with that individual. Tell the person what you like about the workplace and working with them. Then explain the issue. “People respond to things that are emotionally laden—what is real in the heart first,” says Dr. Banks.
– You should also take into consideration the timing and rhythm of your workplace, and then choose the right time to speak. “So not before they’re rushing to their most important presentation with their boss. Not at the end of the day when their blood sugar is drained and their tired and need to get home,” Banks adds.
Try inviting the person to lunch or when the person is slightly relaxed during a coffee break. Keep in mind that as a black woman you have to be even more strategic about timing your conversation because of the racial biases and tension that exist in our society.
“So imagine that that’s a default,” says Banks. Like here I am, black woman coming in and they just did something on Black Lives Matter the night before and the cops just beat down another black woman. This may or may not be the best strategic day to have the conversation. You have to weigh it in.”
In the end, once you’ve spoken up recognize that you might not get the response you’re looking for, but that the fact that you engaged in such a courageous conversation on your own terms is a victory for you nonetheless.
“What you really want to get out of a courageous conversation is your ability to open your mouth and say it. The minute you’ve said it the way you want to say it, game over you’ve won,” says Dr. Banks. “You’re going to have to develop the linguistic skill and emotional discipline to hold these kinds of conversations in gender equity and be able to talk about it and leave the room saying, “I didn’t do half bad. I actually said everything I wanted to say. I don’t know what the hell they said because I was so focused on me, I didn’t hear them, but I’m really proud of myself.”