Several years ago, I met a colleague for lunch. As she rushed in and sat at our table, I could see nothing but frustration on her face. She sat down abruptly letting out a huge sigh and said, “if I have to prove myself one more time.” This statement immediately resonated with me due to having shared experiences and recalling countless stories from other Black professional women and colleagues. Such frustrations stem from Black women oftentimes having to prove their professional credibility repeatedly in the workplace. This also points direction towards the subtle psychological challenge that we as [Black} women must contend with to ascend the proverbial corporate ladder.
Here’s what I mean:
My lunch colleague was a Senior Vice President at a prominent bank where she spent most of her career. During lunch one day, she talked about this new boss she inherited and that he was questioning her every decision. In addition, he questioned her credibility for even being in that position. As if attaining that level of leadership (SVP) was reserved for an elite group such as white males. Aside from work, this woman held a great reputation, extremely involved in her community and recognized for her efforts along with being active in local city government.
The waiter took our order and while we were waiting for our food to arrive, I thought of a story about one of my shared experiences around having to prove myself in the workplace as well. At this moment, I wanted to display empathy and hope such a story would bring about laughter and brighten the mood.
Once I interviewed for the position as Director of Human Resources. I had all the necessary credentials, experience and from the conversation I was rocking that interview. I felt extremely confident and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that this position was mine. In the middle of the conversation, the interviewer, who was a White woman, asked me if I had a certification from a well-known HR professional association. This certification is for individuals who perform general Human Resources related duties and may be pursuing a career in HR.
At that moment, I thought to myself, “Are you really asking me about a professional association certification?” It was apparent during the interview that I clearly met the required credentials. I held a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in Human Resources. I have taught Human Resources at the graduate level at several universities but that wasn’t enough. She persisted to ask about a professional association’s certification? Not to knock the certification, I think for some it is very valuable and appropriate but again, the message was clear. I needed to have the certification to “prove myself one more time” or otherwise I would be “disqualified” as a candidate during the interview. I laughed to myself and thought “if I have to prove myself one more time” then this is not the place for me. This same phenomena and dialogue that existed years ago between me and my lunch partner and still occurs more times than I’d like to think every day.
It is my belief to never downplay or let others downplay their talents, values, and self-worth. Follow your dream to your mountain top, whatever it may be. Sometimes you can have the right vision, but you’re not in the right place. In the end, my colleague decided to weigh her options. Even after such a long tenure at her company she decided to leave. Before her departure, she negotiated a well-deserved severance and retirement benefits package and then went on to her other love within civic duty. She didn’t have to “prove” herself to anyone anymore and ultimately made the right decision for herself which I know felt great.