Careers

“I’ll forever have to prove myself”: the reality of climbing the career ladder as a woman of colour

Evidence shows women of colour are still hugely under-represented in senior roles at work. Here, three women open up about how racism and discrimination have affected their careers. 

There’s no getting away from the fact that women of colour don’t have the same opportunities for career progression as their white counterparts.

The 2020 Colour of Power index revealed that just 11 out of 1,099 positions in the UK’s most powerful institutions are held by women of colour. According to a recent report on diversity in the boardroom, the number of Black and minority ethnic (BAME) women on boards in FTSE 100 companies is just 3.8%.

The Fawcett Society’s 2020 Sex and Power report further highlights the lack of ethnic minority women across top jobs in all sectors. There are no women of colour represented within the highest levels of the civil service, there has never been a Supreme Court judge who is a person of colour, and BAME women make up just one per cent of university vice-chancellors.

In her review of race in the workplace, Baroness McGregor-Smith found that people of colour are more likely to be overqualified than their white colleagues, but white employees are more likely to be promoted. It’s no surprise, then, that 32% of BAME women feel they’ve been unfairly turned down for a promotion or denied access to training and development opportunities.

This year may have seen a global push for racial equality but research shows that ethnic minorities have been hit hardest by pandemic job losses. 22% of ethnic minority workers have fallen into unemployment since March, compared with 9% of employees overall. 43% of BAME women say they are worried about their job prospects and financial security due to the pandemic.

From lower salaries, job insecurity and unconscious bias to a lack of role models and promotion opportunities, Black and brown women face insurmountable obstacles throughout their careers.

So, how does it feel when your race is holding you back from reaching your full potential? Three women share their stories. 

Alika’s story

Alika*, 30, is a communications and administration assistant from London. She has vast experience in public relations but is currently working in an admin role she is overqualified for.

“I know I’m selling myself short,” says Alika. “But I’m conscious that as a Black woman, my every move is under a microscope. I’m not prepared to progress in a career where I’ll forever have to prove myself. It’s exhausting.”

For Alika, one situation in particular took a heavy psychological toll. In a previous position, a white female colleague labelled her as controlling and domineering. To her dismay, none of her other colleagues supported her and she was alienated from the team entirely.

“It truly broke me to my core,” reflects Alika. Terrified of being labelled as aggressive again, she decided to leave the job. For the next two months, she underwent cognitive behavioural therapy to help process what had happened.

“I was suicidal up to a point because I felt like I could never be myself,” she says. Fortunately, her current workplace is a more positive environment and she has the support of a mentor. Nonetheless, Alika is a shell of her former self. “I’m riddled with anxiety and low confidence.”

“I feel safer in my low-grade job as I have to answer to more people above me. This means I’m less likely to be in a position to be labelled aggressive,” she admits. “It’s as if I must ‘know my place’ and ‘stay in line’ as a woman of colour.”

At this point, Alika is utterly fatigued. “As a Black woman in the corporate world, my existence is hollow so I’m not motivated to progress beyond the need to earn an income.” 

Eve’s story

27-year-old HR manager Eve* has also felt the effects of racial discrimination from the very start of her career.

“In my first HR role, my manager and head of the department happened to be working part-time. This meant I ended up taking on a lot of tasks beyond my job description, and as such, was being seriously underpaid,” she explains.“But when my yearly performance review came around, I was told I wouldn’t get a pay rise and was encouraged to go for a low-level CIPD certification, despite my skills and experience.”

“It’s worth mentioning that working in HR, I had an oversight of salaries, and the handful of Black people in the company were paid a lot less than their white counterparts for the same job,” she adds.

“When I contested the fact I’d been overlooked for a salary increase, they would try and manipulate me and play down my role in the company.”

Eve was told she would never get the salary she wanted so with little hope of rising up, she decided to leave the position.

She has recently started a new role at a different company but she doesn’t feel she’ll ever be truly valued in a white-dominated working environment. For that reason, she decided to launch her own business.

“Self-employment seems the only way to get out of this mistreatment,” explains Eve. “l hope one day it takes me out of this nine-to-five where I have to work extra hard to remind myself I’m worth something even if others don’t see it.”

Saima’s story

Like Eve, 29-year-old Saima* works in HR but was made redundant earlier this year.

“I was the only one in a team of white men who was let go,” Saima tells Stylist.co.uk. “They should have put all of us at risk and done an assessment but they just selected me – it was blatant discrimination.”

“When I asked for further reasoning, they said I didn’t have enough experience in other areas of the business that my white male colleagues, who were doing the bare minimum, apparently did.”

Saima was lucky in that she was offered a company-wide redundancy package but it means she can never bring forward a case of discrimination. “It’s just another way of silencing me,” she says. “If I say anything defamatory about the company, they won’t pay me.”

“If I was rich enough that I didn’t need the money, I would have taken it to court but if you want to pay your bills and live, you have to shut up and deal with it,” says Saima. “Plus, the aggravation of going through that ordeal to probably get less money than my redundancy agreement wasn’t worth it.”

Since her redundancy in March, Saima says she’s been going through a sort of grieving process. “I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t matter how hard you work if you’re a Black or brown woman, it’s probably never going to happen for you.”

“I feel extremely disillusioned. I would take a job because I have to pay my bills but do I see myself having a career and progressing? No.” 

Sheryl Miller is a business coach and the author of Smashing Stereotypes - How To Get Ahead When You’re The Only _____ In The Room. 

“Progress has been very slow up until this point but I do think that 2020 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has been a major wake-up call,” she says.

“The ‘Pull up for Change’ campaign, which started via Instagram to hold beauty brands accountable for the number of Black employees on their staff, has been a positive step,” says Sheryl. “It has put pressure on huge brands like Adidas, Starbucks and Nike to take action. I believe things like this are going to force change.”

Sheryl, who is head of mentoring at the Professional Women’s Network London, also highlights the importance of mentoring for women at the start of their career and sponsorships as they move up. “They can help make up for a lot of internal and external challenges,” she says.

She points to initiatives such as the Professional Women’s Network mentoring programme, as well as the 30% Club, which organises sponsorships at senior levels.

“There are some really great networks out there for women in different sectors,” says Sheryl. “There’s groups like Women in Banking and Finance, Women in STEM and Women in the Law, founded by Black barrister Sally Penni.”

Other useful organisations include The Other Box, a community for Black and brown creatives, Asian Women Mean Business, Hustle Crew, a platform to support people of colour in tech, and Women Who, a network for working women set up by writer Otegha Uwagba. 

Diversity consultant Imrana Ali believes a key issue is the lack of ethnic minority representation within HR and recruitment.

“They’re the parts of the business that are responsible for hiring and retention policies yet there’s pretty much no people of colour in these departments. It’s a problem because they essentially control how everyone in the company is hired and retained.”

To ensure women of colour don’t lose hope and are able to progress, Imrana says employers must put specific plans, policies and targets in place. “We need to proactively reach out to these women, ask them how they’re feeling in their roles, give them access to opportunities and let them know there won’t be any repercussions if they speak up about discrimination.”

Find out more about your rights and what you can do if you have experienced discrimination in the workplace from Gov.UK, or you can contact Citizens Advice for more information and guidance

*Names have been changed.