Being a double minority in the workplace brings its own set of unique issues, and when you add age into the mix—whether you’re the most junior of the group or the seasoned employee—these factors can pose a triple threat—or advantage.
Medill Reports recently profiled three young Chicago women, asking them how being young, black, and female in the work place either works for or against them. Their experiences made me think about my own struggles with a previous employer. I had never felt like any of those qualities mattered—except for the time I was asked to fact check slang words to make sure the editor was using the right ones. In a few years I had become the youngest, first black, and first female editor of a publication and I was the youngest and only black editor in my group, but oddly it wasn’t until I got that promotion that suddenly my age became the focus of everything I did and how I was treated.
Instead of the freedom and respect that comes along with becoming an editor, I was reduced to having to run everything by someone else because “you’re just so young.” Conversations were held behind my back about how I had a lot of potential, but I was just “so young,” and it’s not that I don’t think she’s capable, it’s just—I know, I’m so young. It’s hard not to think some of that age discrimination was just a cover for what their real issue was—the fact that I’m so black—but of course they couldn’t say that out loud.
On the other hand, there are environments where being a young black female works to your advantage. One of the women profiled in the article was Brittany Foster, 25, a Howard grad who works in marketing and said being the only minority has its perks.
“It works for me because I am the only young black woman on my team. It’s like of course we know who Brittany is. People tend to gravitate towards the minority sometimes as far as like opportunities and things like that and are willing to give them a chance. But at the same time you have to keep in mind that when they give that chance they might have underlining thoughts like ‘I hope she can do this and I hope she can do that.’”
Some stereotypes do come with the territory, though, she says:
“I was at work and I remember one time this Caucasian girl goes, ‘if I got into a fight with Brittany I would be scared. I feel like you would beat my A$$’ And I’m like ‘do I come across that way?’ That was a misconception that I was down to do something I don’t even necessarily agree with, because you think ‘oh she’s black, and she always has something sassy to say.’ There are just so many things people think about black women that just aren’t even true. You don’t take the time to get to know any of us because you already have these thoughts manifested in your head. So you’re already thinking ‘she’s going to pop off.’”
There’s also a double edged sword that comes with people’s perceptions about black women, banker Maria McKiever, 27, said:
“One aspect of being a black female is having to be this iron-clad women. In a negative aspect, people think that you’re going to have a certain attitude and you’re going to cause certain problems, but on the positive aspect, you’re already naturally considered strong, which we are, but it makes it hard to ever have those moments to let your guard down.”
You also have to pick your battles, she noted:
“You kind of have to find that balance between what I should stand up and fight for and what I should let slide. If you’re working amongst white men, it’s like what jokes do you let slide so you don’t come across looking pro-African and sensitive and when do you take that stance. You have to find that fine line.”
Black women are no stranger to walking that fine line and if the corporate culture of your work environment embraces diversity, you can easily take what seem to be three strikes and make them work for you. You won’t always be the youngest on the team, and hopefully not the only female or minority, but the lessons you learn about corporate America, office politics, and even your own abilities when you’re in that situation are invaluable.
How does being young, black, and female affect you in the work place? Does it work to your advantage or disadvantage? Does one trait seem to overshadow the others?
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.