I’m Not An Assistant, I’m The Owner: How Women Of Color Experience Unconscious Demotion

March 13, 2018  |  


At Essence’s Black Women In Hollywood Awards, Angela Bassett told young women of color: “When you walk in the room, know that you have everything they’re looking for.” While her statement is definitely true, having what employers and clients want doesn’t always stop them from trying to undermine us.

Black women who have risen through the professional ranks are often mistaken for assistants or people in much lower positions, and time has shown no one, no matter their level of achievement, is immune. Successful investment firm executive Mellody Hobson often tells of an incident that happened about a decade ago when then-aspiring senator Harold Ford asked her to make some media connections for him. When she and Ford showed up at the offices of a major NYC media company, they announced to the receptionist that they were there for the lunch, a lunch Hobson had organized. The receptionist mistook them for servicers hired for the lunch and asked them where their uniforms were.

According to many studies, this is a common occurrence and there’s even a name for it –unconscious demotion: the practice of making assumptions about others and their career status based on race.

“In my research, I’ve found that Black women are unconsciously demoted to even lower positions than white women,” explained Dr. Suzanne Wertheim, researcher and founder of  Worthwhile Research & Consulting. “For example, while white female doctors were mistaken for nurses, a Black female doctor was mistaken for an orderly. And while white female lawyers were mistaken for legal secretaries, Black female lawyers were mistaken for criminal defendants.”

Fran Walker, a credit investment analyst at TD Securities with a portfolio worth more than $100 billion, said she commonly runs into the issue of “People assuming that I’m exaggerating the size of the portfolio or what I do.” And it gets worse.

“People have mistaken me for custodians or admins. I’ve had people argue with me about my role — ‘Surely, your team doesn’t work with ‘that’ much money.’ There have been other times where people have asked me to do admin stuff. I’ve gotten into confrontations with company-sponsored car services because the driver assumed I was lying about my identity,” she sad.

One recent study, Double Jeopardy?: Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science, found that Black and Latina women scientists were sometimes mistaken for janitors. The study, by the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, found that 100 percent of the 60 scientists interviewed said they had experienced bias and discrimination, and many of the African-American and Latina scientists said they were “routinely” mistaken for janitors.

Unfortunately, these unconscious demotions aren’t limited to the workplace. Dr. Geneva Williams, who was the first female executive vice president of United Way in southeastern Michigan, said she has often been mistaken for the “help” when going about her day to day life.

“How often have we been in stores and been mistaken for the sales help? Once I was in the dressing room of a high-end store looking at some of the discarded clothes right outside the changing rooms. A woman comes out, walks past several other women who were also looking at the clothes on the rack and pulls up her long hair. She turns around, putting her back in my face, and says, ‘Zip this up.’ There wasn’t even a ‘please,’ ‘excuse me,’ nothing,” recalled Williams. “My first reaction was sheer shock. My second reaction was slapping the person in front of me, but I didn’t. I took a deep breath and zipped her up and then I grabbed a dress from the rack and gave it to her and said you are just in time to take care of this and went back into my dressing room.”

Williams’ response is common among Black women who have to prove their worth while simultaneously attempting not to become another stereotype. “Unfortunately, I have been mistaken for someone of lower ranking as a business owner,” shared business strategist and realtor Terré Holmes of Terré Holmes Property Partners and co-author of Upfront; An Entrepreneurs Quick Start Guider. “When that happened, I simply corrected the person with a smile and, depending on how significant they were to my bigger picture, I sometimes went a step further.

“What I’ve learned in my nearly 20 years in business is that nothing beats eye contact and a meaningful conversation,” she added. “It can sometimes make the difference in how or if you’re remembered at all. If I was seeking to win a contract or an opportunity to work with a company, I’d introduce or reintroduce myself, letting them know how excited I was to be partnering or working with them and that I’m available to answer any questions they might have. Thus, adding instant value to myself, while gaining their trust, and eliminating any barriers for future communication.”

Holmes’ advice is similar. “Politely correct the person who is misinformed of your role. If you aren’t familiar with them, ask them who they are and what their role is. Afterwards, follow-up with an email and let them know that you are happy to have met them and you are more than happy to help them in any way in the future. This builds a rapport with the person and should solidify in their mind who you are and what value you bring.”

She added, “If individuals still act confused about who you are, after you’ve told them a number of times, then that may mean that they’re committed to being stuck. Try saying to them, ‘I’ve communicated who I am on several occasions to you. What do you suggest I do to help you remember?’ This reverses the responsibility and politely says to them, ‘I don’t want to answer this question for you again.’ Remember, some people are committed to being stuck and your job is simple; don’t be stuck with them.”

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