My career wake-up call came in the form of another female identifying PM who looked me in the eyes and told me that I didn’t talk about myself enough. I was taken aback. Didn’t she know it was rude to talk about yourself?
Then the glass shattered. It wasn’t rude to talk about yourself, I had just been culturally primed to stay “humble” and she had not. It wasn’t her failing, it was mine for holding myself back.
I am the daughter of Cuban immigrants raised in Miami.
Culturally, we’re taught that “calladita se ve más bonita” or when you’re quiet you look prettier. Though my family had raised me to be strong and independent, that sentiment of work hard, keep your head down, and say nothing was always around me. It meant that I made myself exactly what I was taught – expendable. I was exhausted from keeping my team running but didn’t want to ask for help because I would look weak. I would look weak because my manager had never known how much I was actually doing because I had never told him just how much I was doing. I had fallen into the trap of almost every minority woman. I burned out and couldn’t perform because I had let my own cultural biases hold me back.
Black, Indigenous and other women of color are at a higher risk for burnout than other minority groups. There are many environmental factors that cause burnout but one that I can attest to personally is the often overlooked cultural differences that lead BIPOC women to burnout. Having an advocate who can recognize these cracks and advocate for us in those moments can help reduce the cognitive load of being the only one who looks like you and can help reduce these instances of burnout.
At this point, you’re thinking, Great! How can I help?
Before we dive in, it’s important to know that I speak specifically from my own experience as a child of Cuban Immigrants and a native Spanish speaker in the New York Tech scene. The advice I am about to share is not universal by any stretch of the imagination but it is a way to start understanding how you can advocate for and support BIPOC women at work. With that in mind, let’s get into three ways you can advocate and support your coworkers.
Number 1: Don’t make us do unpaid labor
This seems like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised at how many “Oh we can practice Spanish together!” comments I get the second people find out I speak Spanish. This is unpaid labor. It may be our native language but there is a history of discrimination associated with speaking it in the workplace. Accents and mispronunciations in English are often fodder in reviews for being “unprofessional.” It gives off the air of being uneducated. Asking us to “practice” with you during work hours puts us at risk of being labeled as difficult or dumb even though for you it feels like a fun opportunity to expand your mind and learn a new language while bonding with a coworker. If you are our superior we’re doubly in trouble because it could look like we’re currying favor and we may struggle to say no. It is also important to understand that not every Latina speaks Spanish fluently and this could be a source of anxiety and frustration.
It’s a well-known fact that minority women make less than their white counterparts with Black women making 62 cents to the dollar and Latinas making 54 cents to the dollar.
Asking us to do additional emotional labor whether it’s explaining cultural nuances or learning a new language is labor. Emotional labor is unpaid labor that leads to burnout.
Dnika, J. Travis, Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon, and Courtney McCluney call this an emotional tax in their paper Emotional Tax: How Black Women and Men Pay More at Work and How Leaders Can Take Action (Catalyst, 2016). Emotional tax is the heightened experience of being different from your peers at work. It depletes employees, harms their psychological safety, and leads to an increase in burnout. This burnout can lead a lot of minorities to not “stick it out” in high-pressure jobs, reducing their social and economic mobility.
However, if you feel like leaders at work “have your back” you are more likely to have confidence and take interpersonal risks that will set you apart in a positive way. As an ally, you can do this by not forcing unpaid labor on your coworkers and of course fostering belonging.
Number 2: Foster belonging
Employee belonging leads to employee engagement. Belonging, per a recent CultureAmp study, is the one metric that was found to be consistently and universally tied to a person’s workplace commitment, motivation, and pride. Even when accounting for differences across gender, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation, CultureAmp’s data showed that an employee is more likely to be engaged if they feel like they belong. Travis, Thorpe-Moscon and McCluney also note that this allows employees to bring all of themselves, including their unique visions and perspective to the benefit of the whole workplace. You can foster belonging by helping support flexible work arrangements, having honest conversations to find common ground, and speaking up against any exclusionary behavior.
Exclusionary behavior can come in many shapes and forms. As a bilingual person, I actually feel most comfortable and able to fully express myself with some version of Spanglish, a mix of Spanish and English. Having to decide which language to speak is exhausting. A Scientific American Article on “How Brains seamlessly switch between languages” shares the adaptive control hypothesis in which the bilingual individual has to work really hard to make this conscious effort to suppress a language to communicate effectively with one monolingual person versus another fellow bilingual person.
There are moments where I literally translate everyday phrases into English like “stay with the change” (in Spanish quedate con el cambio) instead of “keep the change”. Early on in my career, I would feel ashamed when a coworker would catch me in this mistake. They would hear it and make a comment and I would want to hide. That shame made me more cautious and less willing to come forward, I had made myself look dumb in front of coworkers.
As I became more confident and had coworkers who supported and celebrated me I felt better about it. I still struggle to find words but I no longer feel that shame. You can help by maybe being an anger translator, holding space for us since we can’t always express our anger without backlash. Don’t question or push when we say something that isn’t “normal.” Give us the space to be our full selves and you’ll find happier, fulfilled coworkers who can really bring themselves to work.
Number 3: Promote us
Between perception and language barriers it’s no surprise that very few BIPOC women make it into leadership positions. As the adage goes, if you can’t see it you can’t be it. It is difficult and exhausting trying to fit in and if you have no one to model you will try and mirror who you see.
In fact, 49% of Black women feel their ethnicity or race will make it harder to get a promotion compared to 11% of women overall.
Culturally, we also place those barriers on ourselves. I grew up hearing, “¿No tienes abuela?”.
Grandmothers, in Latino culture, are the ones who believe in you. They climb to the roof and tell the world how awesome you are. If you start doing this for yourself, it’s considered rude and uneducated.
However, in North American work culture it is expected for you to, within reason, celebrate your personal work wins. When my coworker told me I didn’t talk enough about myself she was 100% correct. I didn’t talk about how I helped my team achieve a deadline by taking work off their plates and doing it myself. I never shared how I found the more cost effective path forward. I made myself seem expendable and so I was. It took time and a new manager who saw me, gave me space, and promoted me to realize I need to own up to my achievements as well as my failures.
I could and have found ways to adapt. I do celebrate my wins more often, though it gives me pause to talk about myself that way. I do advocate for myself and try to bring my whole self to work, but it’s still a lot of work. It’s still exhausting and I am still prone to burnout.
In the words of Ali Wong, “I don’t want to lean in… I want to lay down.” I need help. And if I need help, a lot of other women who are like me do too, but they don’t know how to ask for it.
Had that coworker not made me reflect on why I didn’t speak up for myself, I wouldn’t have been able to advocate for myself and get the help I needed from my managers to show up as my full self.
If you made it this far you probably want to be that coworker for someone – and you can!
Acknowledging the extra work is step one. How will you advocate for yourself or be a better ally to your colleagues?
Some additional reading: