Racism in the workplace: what you need to know

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During one of my teaching placements when I was in my early twenties, a few colleagues made fun of me during lunchtime by waving food in my face. The reason they found this hilarious, you see, is because I was observing Ramadan, which meant I didn’t eat or drink during the day. I was hungry, thirsty and exhausted, but these staff members never tired of tormenting me. Others watched, but no one spoke – it was “just joking”. If I got mad, “I couldn’t take a joke.” In the end, I spent my lunches wandering around town no matter what the winter weather threw at me. This experience made me feel uncomfortable in my own workplace – and, unfortunately, it’s not unique to me.


Racial stereotypes, unconscious biases and white cultural expectations are impacting people across the country. In September 2021, gender equality charity The Fawcett Society conducted research alongside UK race and equality think tank Runnymede Trust to explore the barriers women of color face on the workplace. In both the public and private sectors, women of color are almost nonexistent in positions of power, but they are overrepresented in entry-level positions. Women make up just 6% of FTSE 100 CEOs – and none of them are women of colour. Not to mention that people from ethnic minorities have to send 60% more applications to receive a positive response from an employer than white British applicants. This trend is also seen in career progression, with 31%* of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women saying they have been unfairly passed over for a promotion or turned down outright. Some might think that a lot of progress has already been made to help women succeed – the introduction of equal opportunities legislation and steadily improving maternity pay – but that is not enough.

Women make up just 6% of FTSE 100 CEOs – and none of them are women of color

Yes, we all face gender-based oppression, but there are subgroups of women who face multiple systemic issues. That is, where our gender intersects with race, creed, sexuality, age, ability and class – leaving us at an additional disadvantage. And, without discussing intersectionality and the issues faced by black and brown women, the dialogue around inclusivity and diversity fails. So what can we do?

Well, we can start by looking at four of the top issues facing women of color in the workplace to start the conversation – and then we have to move on…


Unconscious bias

We all have prejudices. I instantly like anyone who reminds me of my brothers and I dislike anyone who says they don’t like books. “Unconscious bias is when you have ideas about groups or individuals who share a common characteristic – such as race, gender or sexuality – without knowing it,” says Melanie Eusebe, co-founder of the Black British Business Awards. There are many types of unconscious biases and because they occur unconsciously we are all susceptible to them.

There’s ageism and gender bias, but affinity bias is also a big problem. This causes us to favor those with whom we feel a connection because of the similarities we see between us, such as a shared hometown, accent, or college. In the workplace, when companies refer to hiring candidates who will be “culturally appropriate,” there is a threat that affinity bias could come into play. This bias can take place as early as the process candidacy and Nicky, 30, witnessed it firsthand. “I’ve experienced microaggressions even in interviews,” says the real estate professional. “I have a British-sounding name, so when employers see my CV, my strong skills and the companies I’ve worked for, you can tell they’re shocked that I’m a black woman when I show up. “

What can be done?

Companies have to deal with the problem. The Fawcett Society suggests that “employers should reject undiverse shortlists, write job specifications more inclusively, have diverse interview panels, and remove all unnecessary data, including name and race, from shortlists. restricted. “Aspects such as gender and race are considered protected characteristics – it is illegal to discriminate against an individual on this basis. If you think you have been unfairly discriminated against, contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau or Acas, an independent body which offers free and impartial advice on employment rights.

Marina PettiGetty Images

Racial stereotypes

We all know what stereotypes are – they range from the idea that all girls play with dolls to the idea that all men are obsessed with football. It May Be Easy To Think They’re Harmless, But They Happen To People Of Color All the time – and can seriously affect the way we act, which in the workplace can impact opportunities (and our everyday happiness). A colleague once told me that she was surprised that my husband was white because she had assumed that I would have an “arranged marriage with someone from your own background”. The assumptions made me feel isolated in an already small department. I felt like I had to prove that I was brilliant at all times. I was afraid of being perceived as even more of an outsider if I ever expressed a need for support.

A colleague once told me that she was surprised that my husband was white.

For black women in predominantly white workplaces, stereotypes can cause them to behave in ways that are unnatural to their personality, with the “loud black woman” stereotype causing them to act in ways extroverted, even when they are not. During her exam, 24-year-old Jocelyn, who works in corporate governance, was asked by a woman on her team if she was ‘fine’ because she was ‘quiet’ – and it was not what she expected. “I was a professional and hardworking member of the team, but this comment kept coming up, with my final report calling me a ‘shy person’ (I’m not shy),” says Jocelyn.

What can be done?

It’s exhausting trying to be something you’re not all the time. ‘Lean into your introversion, understand your attributes and really try to embrace what makes you special. If we are allowed to communicate, create, meet, present, connect and lead in the way that works best for us, everyone wins,” advises Jeri Bingham, host of HushLoudly, a podcast dedicated to voice amplification. introverts. For more tips on how to navigate this form of stereotyping, read René Germain’s article Why We Should Embrace Introverted Black Women in the Workplace. And if you’re dealing with other forms of racial stereotyping at work, contact your human resources department to see if the issue can be resolved as a workplace conflict.

White cultural expectations

Dressing professionally in the workplace is an expectation, but what is considered “professional” creates gray areas in which microaggressions can thrive. At her workplace, Nicky regularly faces intrusive questions about the texture of her hair. “I am perceived as different or strange,” she tells me. “I feel like I have to adapt to European standards. I would never feel comfortable with my natural hair. I wear a wig because it goes with looking “presentable” to my white counterparts.

“I felt like an outsider – and not because of my hijab, but because people made such a big deal out of it”

Inclusive strategist Hanan Challouki founded Inclusified to work with businesses to help them adopt a more inclusive mindset. For women who wear the hijab at work, the risk of discrimination based on religion is even more magnified. “I was called all sorts of things,” Hanan tells me. “A colleague called me a ‘monster’ and at another company my hijab was called ‘the elephant in the room’. I often felt like an outsider – and not because of my hijab, but because people made such a big deal out of it.

What can be done?

Hanan suggests finding allies at work. “It’s tricky, because these are not ‘our’ problems, but we have to solve them. Find colleagues who have seen the discrimination and who can support you when you are ready to address it.

work issues for women of color

Marina PettiGetty Images

impostor syndrome

There’s a lot of talk surrounding impostor syndrome and it might seem like almost everyone has experienced it to some degree or another, but it can affect women of diverse ethnic backgrounds in different ways from to their white counterparts. For women of color, a pervasive feeling that you’re an impostor isn’t necessarily something that comes from within — it can stem from deeper societal issues, external factors (e.g., racial prejudice), and systemic oppression. The silence of people of color at work can also perpetuate impostor syndrome. “The impostor syndrome goes hand in hand with gaslighting and our colonial past. Being seen as inferior and the idea that we should be grateful to be in the UK is a message that we receive openly and secretly, and which has an impact on the way we are treated,” explains Dr Sabinah Janally, clinical psychologist.

What can be done?

It is up to those in positions of power to diversify workplaces and provide unconscious bias training. This is a key step in combating the external elements that fuel impostor thinking and discriminate against people of color. Additionally, if we as women of color also understand these external factors, it helps us gain confidence in working with them. Career coach Sunita Harley suggests that focusing on your strengths is a good way to do this. “Think of the skill or task that makes you feel like an impostor, then ask a friend to remind you of all the wonderful skills you have.”

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