I remember the day vividly even though it was over eight years ago. I was at HQ somewhere in the North of Africa, catching up with my then boss. I was trying to explain to him some of the challenges I was facing getting things moving on a project I was leading. He was trying to explain to me why I was struggling to motivate my colleagues into action. Then he said something that took me by surprise: “You know that people find you intimidating, don’t you?” I must have looked a little perplexed because, he added: “Don’t tell me you’re surprised, you must have been told that before.”
I was surprised, but not because he called me intimidating – although it was a new term to add to my collection which already included ‘aggressive’, ‘difficult’, ‘tough’. I was surprised because I couldn’t understand how I had successfully intimidated colleagues from across the Atlantic and largely down a phone line in such a short space of time – I had been with the organization for less than a year at this point. I just didn’t think I had given anyone enough reason to call me intimidating. What did that even mean?
I left his office feeling that my career there had peaked, and my reputation was irrevocably dented. The problem was I just didn’t know how to be anything else except what I was; an educated, confident, black woman who wanted to get things done.
But I realized what I was and what I was perceived to be by a largely white, western and culturally different bunch of colleagues, were at odds. I was not so much ‘educated and confident’ as ‘angry and black’!
Yep, I seemed to have become (at least in the eyes of my colleagues) my very own worst nightmare – an Angry Black Woman.
I knew people (including me) didn’t generally like Angry Black Women. They were typically bossy, serious, driven (and a little obnoxious) women who eventually didn’t get the promotions or the best projects. They were eventually frustrated out, or tip-toed around and were almost never invited to sit at the table. At least that’s how it was in the highly matrixed, white-male dominated environment in which I used to work. But the same can be said of the black-male dominated corporate world, too.
A few days after the interaction with my boss, I was in London with a bunch of equally well-educated, confident, black female friends. During a rare pause in a boisterous no-holds-barred conversation about life, love and everything else, I told them the story.
All five of them without exception rolled their eyes, threw their heads back and laughed raucously!
“Tell me something new,” one of them said. “I have been called that by every person I have ever worked for and I am still here.” “Don’t let it bother you, I get accused of being aggressive all the time,” said another. “It’s because you’re a woman and you know what you want. ***k them. Let’s get another bottle of wine.”
And that was that. These women had all learned to shake it off and carry on. Being an angry black woman was part of the territory and on the surface it didn’t seem to bother them one bit.
But it bothered me.
Successful African Female
I thought back to when, after childbirth I had wanted (ok, needed) to lose weight. I hired the best trainer and nutritionist (ones that looked like they lived what they preached). I did what they did and over time I lost the weight and developed a healthier approach to food. So I figured if I wanted to be successful in my white, male-dominated work environment, I would need to find someone who was effortlessly successful – a natural – in that space, and then do what they did.
The aim was to transform from this ‘Angry Black Woman’ to a Successful Woman – period. One of the ways I thought I could do that was by emulating the traits of a Successful White Male. It didn’t mean changing who I was: a Louis Vuitton bag from the China Mart is still a fake any which way you carry it! In my mind it was a temporary fix to a problem while I waited for systemic change. I even had a formula to explain it in my head that sounded vaguely mathematical: ABW+SWM= SAF (Successful African Female)!
It struck me that white men in positions of power were all around me and have always featured prominently in my life. They have been my bosses, my clients, my trainer, my coach, my doctor, even my gynae. They had been making decisions about my work and my life for years and now, finally, I was intentionally seeking one out to try to understand the secrets of their success.
And that’s how I set out to find myself a SWM guide and yes, I learned a few things from him. I learned it was about knowing you were heard, supported and already at the table and acting accordingly. That there was nothing to fight for, so there was nothing to be angry about.
It meant me learning to navigate my workplace as if I was winning, assuming that I would get what I want, that things would come easily. That I was part of the club and already had a seat at that table.
It meant I no longer needed to angrily bang on the door and if by chance I found myself on the wrong side of that door, all I needed to do was calmly, patiently point out the error knowing it would be rectified. That it was a scheduling error and nothing to do with my colour, gender or race.
I learned it was the difference between travelling first class (smooth and easy) vs coach (stressful and uncomfortable). It was just a much better experience and it put you in a much better mood.
In his book, Spencer Johnson, author of Who moved my cheese?, advocated for people to see change not as the end of something old but as the beginning of something new. He said: “If you do not change, you can become extinct.”
It was time for me to bury the perceived ABW who was singlehandedly making herself extinct anyway, and bring SAF to life.
Maybe it’s time for all of us impatient black women who want to make it in today’s (black or white) male-dominated corporate world to exhale slowly, while we wait for the change to come.