In a building that houses nearly 100 people, I am only older than one person- the woman that I supervise. For the most part, I haven’t minded because I’m a firm believer in letting my work do the talking. But as I have taken on more responsibilities, I’ve been confronted, now more than ever, with the inconvenient truth: people aren’t inclined to respect women, particularly young women, in the workplace.
I’m a millennial. A child of the late 80s and 90s. Slap bracelets and Nickelodeon were all the rage. My industry, however, is dominated by Baby Boomers-people born between 1946 and 1964. There are some Generation Xers but for the most part, it feels like I work with people my parents’ age. I usually don’t even notice but once in while, I bristle at the careless dismissal of my thoughts during meetings or proposed initiatives. “Well, you’re young. You’ll figure it out,” they say. In those instances, I usually stiffly smile while thinking “wait a @#%%#@# minute!” But I never voice my irritation because I know I’m not alone. The Society for Human Resource Management conducted a poll on inter-generational conflict in the workplace and found that older generations perceive younger ones to be lazy and dress inappropriately while younger workers found their older colleagues to be resistant to change and micro managers. So while I casually walk around the office with a mixed media pencil skirt and studded flats, someone from another department, dressed in the same polyester blend mail- order suit they’ve been wearing for 15 years eyes me disapprovingly. I once overheard someone mutter “well doesn’t she think she’s cute.”
I mean I do, but that’s not the point.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal summarized a report released by Lean In and McKinsey & Company. The headline? “What’s holding women back in the workplace?” The full report dives into the specific findings but to put it plainly, the study suggests that women face significant barriers to advancement and a steeper path to senior leadership. But this isn’t a diatribe against the patriarchal system (because let’s face it, patriarchy sucks). I’m particularly concerned with how I and other women like me can effectively navigate in the workplace as young, bold, black women. I advise the young women I mentor to be assertive, confident, and self-assured. I firmly believe that no one is going to willfully grant you respect when they’re not even inclined to grant you a 5 minute meeting. You have to demand it. But there are often times when I know that it’s far easier said than done.
I work in an environment that is often charged with political rumblings and policy changes, and in here, relationships are everything. If the saying goes “it’s not what you know but who you know” then in my world “it’s not who you know but what they can do for you”. And being a loud-mouthed and sassy Black girl won’t get you many friends. So you have to play it cool while also proving that you’re no one’s doormat. Be ambitious but don’t make a lot of noise about it. Aspire for the top position but don’t be “ghetto” about it. It’s exhausting feeling like you have to dance around racist and sexist stereotypes just to be taken seriously when statistically for Black women, the top spot is nearly unattainable.
In a report released earlier this year by the Center for Talent Innovation, it was found that “while black, female professionals are more likely to seek top leadership roles, they are treated as virtually invisible”. You can read the full report here . I am not at the stage, yet, where I am ready for an executive position. I know that I need the experience and personal and professional development that I know can only be achieved with time. Yet I’ve had to bite my tongue as conservative and arguably prejudiced colleagues discuss current events among themselves. “If you don’t want to be shot/arrested/choked, don’t commit a crime,” they’ll say. Is this what they’d say of me if I were to be arrested and suspiciously die in police custody? I consider things like this when I’m interrupted for the millionth time during a meeting. I’m young, so I brush it off because but I can only imagine my frustration and anger at being qualified for a senior position and being passed over or ignored completely.
So what now?
Being the new kid on the block where the average tenure is 10 years can be daunting. Who do you talk to? How can you be trustworthy? How do you live and work boldly? For the time being, I suppose that all I can do is work hard, work smart, and make the right connections. I may be in my mid-twenties but I know how to run a productive half-hour meeting, facilitate strategic planning, and analyze systems and processes in a way that would tighten up most organizations. I’m confident in my abilities. And for now, that will have to be enough.