I am literally sitting at my desk, with an attitude. Like full blown suckin’ my teeth, cracking my neck, releasing deep heavy sighs. Contemplating whether I’m going to have a full meltdown and give someone the reading of a lifetime or if I’m just going to pack my sh*t and leave for the day with no f*cks given. Maybe I should do both, set my career on flames and walk off into the sunset.
Some background… I work in a predominately white, male-dominated industry. Women only make up 20% of the industry. Even worse, black people make up less than 17% of that same population. The double whammy of being black and a woman comprises LESS than 5% of my industry’s population. Imagine this… 100 people in a conference room. 20 of them are women. 5 of them are black women. See that bush in the 2nd row? Barely, I know. A perfect metaphor. Me every day at work.
Now, I’m not mad at the ‘white man’. This blog post isn’t a story about white privilege or prejudice and discrimination at work. Matter-fact, the white men at my job have a surprising amount of respect for and reliance on me. They look to me for guidance. Appreciate my candor. Lay burdens down at my feet because they know I am their greatest advocate. Honestly, some of them come to me with TOO MANY of their issues…
I’m actually at the point where they look to me to rescue them from EVERY situation. If someone else comes to me to complain about their desk phone, people heating fish in the microwave, or the dude chewing his apple to loudly, I may actually blow my top.
My issue today is about how women, particularly black women, often do not support each other, leading to division, cliquish-ness, and bird beefs in the office. 15 years in my field, and I have never felt as demeaned, challenged, or unsupported by ANY other group than my OWN.
My subject of choice today is a woman who joined my team. I have been supporting my customer for over 3 years. I ‘started from the bottom’ as a contributing team member and over time I rose to be a Team Lead, then promoted to a Technical Task Lead overseeing 8 products, and my career trajectory continues with significant forward momentum. I have enjoyed my time, building relationships, defining strategy, and delivering on time and ahead of schedule; all while gaining the confidence of an engineering staff of over 100 people.
I was immediately excited that a new black woman had come to support our organization. In all aspects we are outnumbered and it makes me proud that there are more of us jumpin’ into the scene. The day we were introduced, I popped over to my Technical Director’s desk and could hear her coo-ing and giggling with him; her expression wide-eyed, body language intently leaned in. I had been on vacation for 2 weeks and today was my first day back. Very happy to see me, my TD turns and begins addressing me.
TD: Welcome back! There is someone I want you to meet.
Me: <Beaming a huge smile, I turn to her> Hi, you must be <Bitter Black Chick>. I have heard so much about you. I just got back from vacation and I am so excited to finally meet you!
BBC: <Body language immediately stiffens> Hi.
Her voice was strained, no longer round and full with excitement. The air, previously warm with cheer, immediately felt icy. I think I even noticed the lights flickering… Arms folded. Head cocked to the side. I was immediately taken aback. Trying to regain my footing, I began babbling. Her expression remaining stoney, dripping with annoyance…
Me: Have you met the team? Has anyone done a deep dive with you? They are a really great bunch…
BBC: <Cutting me off> I met everyone. I really love <Random White Guy 1> and <Random White Guy 2>. They have been great.
Me: Yes, the team is so wonderful. We should set up some meetings next week to go through each of the team’s road-maps and talk strategy. Our end-users have a lot of initiatives they want to accomplish this year….
BBC: <Cutting me off again> Maybe. I have gotten everything I need from <Random White Guy 1> and <Random White Guy 2>.
My TD immediately recognizes that this convo is not going well. Trying to ascertain what is happening, without allowing this awkward conversation to persist, he tries to redirect.
TD: <Me> is the person you will be working with directly on all issues related to products in TTO. All of the engineering staff report to her. She is extremely knowledgeable and has all the background you will need to get started.
She was obviously not placated. And I was shaken. I politely figured out a way to exit the conversation. At first, I felt like I was crazy. Each encounter with this women from this point was equally frosty. She did not say hello in the hallways, going out of her way not to speak or ask me questions. For weeks I sequestered unbiased opinions, replaying all of the our encounters. Was I being sensitive? I am I reading too much into the situation???
She had three 1-on-1 conversations with me before she started requesting to work with other people. She stated that she did not feel as if I was senior and specifically wanted to work with one of the two other technical directors (white men) in the organization. One of the technical directors she requested to work with had only been in my organization for a few months prior to her arrival. Extremely intelligent guy, but he was in no way more “senior” than me on these products.
Her own leadership assured her that I was the best. They brought both of us individually into their office, asking me details about our conversations, trying to understand what had turned her off about me. She gave trivial answers… and everyone remained flabbergasted. My leadership, her leadership, myself were all confused as to why she refused to work with me.
We are now a year in and we rarely speak. I support her products from a distance. Pulling strings, orchestrating meetings, having conversations without her knowing it was specifically me fixing things on her behalf. She doesn’t show up to meetings, can never be found. And even if she was present, wouldn’t know wtf was going on. She is more interested in asserting her superiority than collaborating with or learning from me, so her support to my teams suffers. The white men she preferred to work with don’t even want to talk to her, let alone work on any project with her.
Today, she tried me for the last time. Igorning my emails, declining meetings, and avoiding my questions. I can see her cackling at her desk on the phone. Not a care in the world, while my project’s are crashing and burning in the distance… She has been on the phone for well over 30 minutes and when I popped by to let her know I wanted to catch her before she left for the day, she gave me THE FINGER.
BIIIIIIIH!!!! And all I can ask is, WHY? Why Bitter Black Chick, why? Attractive black woman. Well put together from the outside. Articulate. Proper. Neat. But she immediately was put off by me. Was it my nappy black hair that I rock around the office, full blown pouff? Was I too black for her taste? Used too much slang? Followed too many trends? Animal print everything…not shying away from wearing my “Fly Nerd” or “Mess in a Bottle” tees with cute jeans and loafers on Fridays?
Why did she immediately hate me? Why did she try to diminish me? If she thought I wasn’t knowledgeable enough, why wouldn’t she work to HELP me succeed? In a space where there are so few of us, she would rather see me fail than to see “us” succeed. Why do I feel the intense heat of all women, forcing me to compete for to have more, do better, be bigger than our counterparts?
I ultimately believe this woman’s behavior is driven by her extreme insecurity. She doesn’t believe in her own ability to hold her own in this field. She is in over her head and my success is a direct threat to her success. We constantly hear how ‘we’ have to be twice as good in order to succeed in the workplace. And there are only a few spots reserved at the ‘top’ for women and minorities. She was prepared to use her killer smile and go-getter attitude to cozy up to the ‘more senior’ white men. She was not prepared to compete with me. And the only way she could secure her bag was to destroy me.
It hurts, but ultimately what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger. This is a lesson, that people you perceive to be an ally, can become an unlikely enemy. However, I will continue to strive to break down barriers for black women because I know there is room for all of us to have a seat at the table. There doesn’t have to be ONE head black chick in charge. But after today, it definitely won’t be her…
To Be Continued