The Inclusion Illusion: Black Women Are Opting Out of Corporate America

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Last night I dreamed that my teeth were falling out. The dream was so vivid that when I woke up, I ran to the bathroom fully expecting to see nothing but gums when I opened my mouth. This prompted me to search do a quick Google search for the interpretation of this dream. I came across a post by Delta Dental. To summarize, this dream is associated with starting anew and insecurities surrounding embarking on an unfamiliar path. The dream analysis seemed to represent exactly where I am in life.

I always felt smart. I read early, got good grades, and when I finally took my first job in Payroll and Human Resources, I expected to work hard and climb the ranks to the top of my field where I could really make an impact. I did my part; I worked hard, learned something new when I identified an area where I was lacking, and always worked well above my title and pay to prove I had what it took to be promoted. In my naivety, I believed that the playing field was even and that everyone that worked hard would be rewarded. The truth hit me like a ton of bricks.

I first became aware that I was held to a different standard than my colleagues in my early twenties. I was working a hybrid role as a Human Resources and Payroll Specialist. I caught on quickly and was “rewarded” with more work but my title and pay remained the same. The company grew and decided they needed a manager in my department. Although doing the exact work for over a year and receiving accolades, I applied for the role. I was overlooked and someone with less experience was hired into the role. After it was decided that they could not keep up with the workload, the organization came back to ask if I was interested. I wasn’t so I moved on.

That was not a unique situation. My career progression has come at a staggering cost. Many times, the only way I could be promoted was to apply for a new job. I always hoped that new leadership would see my value and give me the opportunities I worked so hard for. I cannot think of a time where that was the case. My leveling up has always been a hard-fought battle, leaving a bad taste in both mine and my employer’s mouths. They believed I should just be grateful to work for them while I believed I should not have to work two times as hard as my peers in order to be valued.

The beginning of the end of my Payroll and Human resources career came this year. I came into an organization because I believed the CEO was a true ally. This time would be different; he understood the plight of black women in the workplace and was doing something about the inequality, or so I thought. After a year and a half of working at a Director level while being paid and titled as a Manager, I left the company. Right after leaving, I heard the CEO discussing issues such as mine on a podcast and decided to reach out on LinkedIn. I believed that by sharing my experience, I could help to make the company a better place for those that came after me. I thought he cared and would appreciate my insight. Instead of simply thanking me for my feedback, I was given first-hand experience with performative allyship. Although proclaiming his support publicly, this leader became defensive, even going as far as to blame me for the experience (more on this in my upcoming book, The Inclusion Illusion). The experience was so shocking and traumatic that I spoke with the company’s legal team but opted to end discussions as I wanted to maintain my right to speak out about what happened to me. Far too often, people that look like me are offered severance pay in exchange for their silence allowing these problematic employers to continue inflicting damage on others while sucking the lifeblood out of them.

Since leaving that organization early this year, I have been involved in a plethora of job interview loops. I have sat in many Zoom interviews, explaining to people that did not look like me or relate to me why I am a good fit for their organizations. There have been times that I made it to the end, but another candidate was selected. In those situations, I have asked for feedback and been told repeatedly how great I was and that the only issue was location although each role I applied for was remote. Other times, I have discovered red flags about companies that have led me to drop out of the process. The thought of getting into another role where I am overworked and overlooked creates extreme anxiety in me and I am no longer sacrificing my mental health for financial gain.

Then yesterday it hit me. On a plane ride home from my grandmother-in-law’s funeral, I had the epiphany life is too short to be unhappy. I already knew that, but told myself that I had put so much into my career and could not just throw it away. It was familiar and stable but it was not my dream. I realized that although I had left one workplace, I was still constantly interviewing for roles that would put me right back into the position that I had so desperately wanted out of. I accepted that Corporate America was not set up for black women and that it would be a long time, if ever before we found ourselves on equal footing. With that, I went home and canceled all of my upcoming interviews. I immediately felt a weight lifted off my shoulders and a true sense of freedom.

The decision to walk away from something I have dedicated my whole life to was not an easy one. It takes financial preparation, a clear sense of direction and self-worth, confidence, support from family and friends, and most importantly a sense of exhaustion with the status quo. My dream about losing my teeth represented all of those things and came right after I made the life-changing decision to let something that I have worked so hard for die in order to give life to my true calling. I am not alone in this. Black women are leaving Corporate America in droves. We are tired of working twice as hard, proving ourselves repeatedly, and going unrecognized. We are exhausted with ignoring microaggressions, silencing ourselves to keep the peace, and being overlooked. We are opening our eyes to the possibility of successfully launching our own ventures when we stop asking for a seat at the table and decide to take a seat at our own.

Black women are starting businesses at breakneck speed. With organizations refusing to do something tangible about the lack of equality in the workplace, the economic landscape will change drastically over the next decade and that is not necessarily a bad thing. We will do what we do best; survive, overcome and thrive. But the absence of black women in the workplace will have a negative impact on companies for many years to come.