Being an ‘Only’: Reflections on Being a Woman of Colour in the Workplace

HOME  PUBLICATION  /  BEING A WOMAN OF COLOUR IN THE WORKPLACE

Published on 29.05.2020 | By Shashi Rajendra
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A few months ago I was asked to provide advice to young women embarking on their post-university careers. At the time, the advice I provided seemed simple and straightforward: be confident in yourself because doing so will breakdown preconceptions people might have of you. I completed my advice with the jaunty reminder that taking people by surprise is a great way to establish one’s capability, and sell one’s ideas. I subsequently found myself wondering, why was it that my most memorable work achievements seemed to occur amid expressions of muted surprise (and sometimes amusement) from my colleagues?  

 

My experiences in the workplace were characterised by often being the only coloured woman, and the youngest person, in the room. Although I was fortunate to be part of an organisation that actively recognised and promoted the virtues of a diverse workforce, predictable workplace trends of age, gender and race were hard to shake off. It is safe to say, I never came across another 24 year-old South Asian woman in a role similar to mine. 

 

Being a woman of colour in a workplace can be likened to being a minority within a minority. The challenges experienced by coloured women in the workforce are not novel issues. Feminist activists and academics have long discussed the ‘double jeopardy’ faced by working women of colour. This double jeopardy arises from coloured women’s need to negotiate the stereotypes and obstacles applied to both their gender and their race. As such, it has been argued that, while white women in the workforce must overcome a glass ceiling, women of colour are confronted with one made of concrete

 

Women from minorities are increasingly bringing to attention the hypervisibility experienced by being the only, or one of the only, coloured women in a work environment. The heightened visibility and scrutiny that accompanies being an ‘Only’ can create significant emotional work as Onlys often perceive themselves to become representatives for all women of their race. Therefore, they see their successes and failures as standards by which other coloured women’s future opportunities may be determined. 

 

I would hesitate to make the hefty claim that my presence shaped the future opportunities available to young South Asian women looking to work where I once did. However, I do believe that being an Only provides a valuable opportunity to create awareness among colleagues of the unconscious biases and stereotypes that are frequently normalised in daily office life. While they may not be career achievements, I pride myself on the comments I’ve made that inspired colleagues to observe workplace dynamics with fresh sets of eyes. On one particularly memorable occasion, my observation that women of colour were lacking at senior leadership levels resulted in a colleague mapping gender and racial characteristics of senior staff onto our organisational chart, helpfully demonstrating my initially unwelcome comment. 

 

However, my most effective means of breaking down stereotypes was undoubtedly through my everyday behaviour and mannerisms. As has been discussed by a number of coloured feminists, the hypervisibility associated with being an Only in the workplace results in women modifying their behaviours to counteract the stereotypes attached to their gender and racial background. In my case, the popular South Asian female stereotype is that of the quiet hard-worker whose diligent, yet unassertive personality makes her a good addition to a team, but an unlikely candidate for senior leadership positions

 

At the start of my career, I found this stereotype to be an advantage. Considered meek and non-threatening, I was usually welcomed to discussions, and gathering information from colleagues was not a hard task. However, over time it became clear that my desire to know more and have a greater say in decision-making was unexpected, and slightly disconcerting to some. As has been the experience of many working women of colour before me, it took significant emotional work to stay strong to my desire to know more and have a greater say. However, in this case, I believe being an Only was a great advantage because I found that my contributions were remembered for longer, and shared more widely. Precisely due to the fact that I was not meant to behave in such a way, my behaviour stood out and garnered me greater recognition in my workplace.

 

Being a woman of colour in the workplace, which often means being an Only, can be a powerful experience. Personally, it provided me with a platform to challenge stereotypes and address workplace inequalities that can be overlooked by the majority in the room. I also found that it pushed me to take risks, and make useful changes to my behaviour in order to combat the preconceptions of others. Research on coloured women in workplaces has found that they are more likely to be risk-takers. This was something I observed in my own behaviour as being an Only gave me the confidence to push for more. I mean, if I didn’t push for it, would anyone ever consider me to be the ideal candidate? 

 

Of course, I am not ignoring the various factors that shaped my experiences in the workplace. The organisation, my team, my manager, and even my colour (brown is apparently less threatening than black) allowed me to negotiate being an Only in my own way. However, for all the other young coloured women out there looking to start their careers, being an ‘Only’ can be one of the handiest tools in your toolkit.

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