Navigating the world of professional or corporate work can be challenging for women of colour, as companies continue to tout commitments to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion while still falling short. For WOC, barriers to professional success can be tougher to overcome, thanks to imposter syndrome, feeling “othered” at work and a lack of support.
In her workshop “Strategic Leadership on Diversity and Inclusion: Tackling ‘Privilege’ and ‘Unconscious Bias,” Dr. Wendy Cukier notes that out of the 20 per cent of corporate board seats held by women, only six per cent are held by those who are racialized. The number is a reminder that it’s important to have WOC in positions of power who can open the door for lower-level employees, and have open and meaningful conversations about privilege, bias and identity in the workplace.
Struggling to get your foot in the door career-wise? Having trouble climbing up that corporate ladder? Read on to hear some advice from Ontario politician Mitzie Hunter. With experience and education in business, numerous years in the non-profit sector and currently serving as MPP for Scarborough-Guildwood, Hunter has tips to share for WOC in all types of professional fields.
Show up as your full self at work
In Canada and worldwide, women of colour face unfair treatment for their choices of hairstyle and aesthetic self-expression — even if these choices aren’t impacting their work performance.
In 2016, Cree Ballah, a Zara employee working in Scarborough, Ont, was reprimanded by management for wearing her hair in box braids. The 20-year-old stepped down from her job weeks later, contemplating filing a human rights complaint. Her story went viral online, prompting an outpouring of support from other young women on social media.
Sadly, Ballah’s story isn’t unique, but Hunter says there’s power in showing up as the whole you. The more women of colour make themselves and their cultures visible, the more it becomes normalized professionally.
“Don’t change who you are to fit in,” says Hunter. “That includes things like hairstyles or textures or clothing styles. Just be yourself.”
Networking is key — both inside and outside the office
Too many of us get sucked into working off the clock, but downtime can still be a great time to foster the professional connections that will help you get ahead when you’re back in the office.
Hunter says bonding with your coworkers off company time can be a great way to feel closer to those you work with and to share the things that make you, you.
“If you’re invited to someone’s cottage, go,” Hunter says. “Even if you didn’t grow up going to a cottage, it is a place that friendships are made and you have an opportunity to really bond with your colleagues, and share your own traditions as well.”
Do an annual self-assessment
Keeping track of your accomplishments is a great tool to help you carve out your path in the workplace. Jotting down your achievements helps quantify the ways you’ve been an asset to your team, plus, it also makes you look super organized.
“Write down the things that you’ve accomplished over the last year,” Hunter says. “When you are meeting with your boss, take that [list] in with you, whether they ask for it or not and really share that.”
Hunter recalls getting a major promotion, which she attributes to having her list of accomplishments at the ready. Writing down future goals will also give you and your manager points of reference for growth and development, creating realistic benchmarks for the targets you want to push towards.
Develop your non-office resume
Well-roundedness is a great tool in any working woman’s arsenal, and volunteering or serving on boards will help you develop governance and leadership experience. Hunter says it’s helped her establish a network that has stuck around throughout her career.
Volunteer work will not only help you look better on paper, but it may also help you pick up new, transferrable skills that can help in your career. Depending on your interests, it can be a lot of fun and is also a great way to meet people in different fields.
Treat everyone with kindness
From the company CEO to the janitor who keeps the office clean, all members of your workplace deserve respect, kindness and dignity. Research has proven that giving someone a compliment, sharing words of recognition and praising others helps to trigger positive emotions and helps people feel more fulfilled.
Hunter says ensuring you practice kindness daily helps strengthen existing relationships and build new ones. Each person’s contributions make your day a little easier, so it’s important to treat everyone well.
Own your work
Hunter urges female workers of colour to speak up and own their voices.
“You need to be seen. I think that’s really important within your organization,” she says.
Opportunities like being on panels or sharing projects you’ve worked on can be scary, but with practice, using your voice gets easier. Look for opportunities to make your ideas heard.
Stay informed about WOC in the workforce
Keeping the pulse of women’s involvement in the workforce can help you better navigate the professional opportunities that come your way.
Hunter got involved with The Prosperity Project, a Rosie-the-Riveter-inspired initiative that aims to stop COVID-19-related setbacks for working Canadian women of all backgrounds. The project gathers intersectionality data, tracking women who also identify as WOC, Black, Indigenous and/or living with disabilities in board and executive officer positions within major Canadian organizations.
Seeing the data, Hunter says, was jarring, with almost no racialized women holding executive leadership positions. By confronting the low number of WOC in leadership roles, it can be key to creating change.
“We need to do a much better job of mentoring and supporting and promoting women who are racialized throughout their careers at every level in organizations,” she says.
Related: What to do if you hate your job.
The expertise and time of higher-ups are precious gifts to ambitious young WOC in the workforce.
“Mentorship is something that should be embraced by anyone that is starting out in their career,” says Hunter. If you put in the effort, Hunter says a powerful mentorship connection has no expiration date.
“Mentoring relationships are real relationships, and they last throughout your career,” she says.
Hunter suggests looking for someone two to three levels above you within your organization to be your sponsor or your champion, and make sure to build trust with that person.
Use your background to educate others
Hunter’s family immigrated to Canada from Jamaica in the mid-1970s, and she says the Canadian education system was not reflective of the histories of Black people in Canada.
From 2016 to 2018, Hunter was Ontario’s Minister of Education, making her the first person of colour in the role. Now, she makes it a priority to inform others of that history through her work.
Know your purpose
People doubting your qualifications can be a major knock to your confidence. For many WOC employees, it can be difficult to figure out the difference between doubt and discrimination.
Hunter says the best way to alleviate doubts that others may have is to understand yourself and your professional purpose. “People can become confused. But at the same time, that is not my problem,” she says. “I have to know why I’m there, making sure I’m always prepared and ready to do the task at hand.”
Despite the very real systemic barriers that exist for women of colour in professional fields, Hunter says knowing yourself as a person and maintaining a strong work ethic toward your tasks alleviates some of the feelings of unworthiness that can come with being the “only one” in your workplace.