Women of colour are hesitant to return to the office – here’s why

Written by Leah Sinclair

As more of us return to the office, Stylist speaks to two women of colour about their experiences and just why it’s time for office culture to change.

Many of us have embraced a new normal despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This new reality that has so far shaped our 2020s has seen us spend more time working from home and has shifted our definition of work – and for many women of colour, this idea of remote working has alleviated many of the stresses that come with working in an office where you are often a minority.

A new report from the Fawcett Society found 75% of women of colour have experienced racism at work and 27% have suffered racial slurs. 

In addition, a new study conducted by Harvard Business Review found many women of colour who work in the tech industry don’t want to return to the office, with 81% of women saying they experienced at least some racism. In comparison, 90% said the same for sexism.

While the Harvard study homes in on the world of tech, many of these issues pop up across industries for women of colour – and as more of us are beginning to head back into the office for longer periods of time, these hesitations still remain.

“The idea of returning to the office full-time has been a source of real anxiety for me,” says Sobia*.

 “There are so many more things I need to think about as a woman of colour that go beyond the frustration of the daily commute or spending too much money on lunch – I now have to prepare myself to enter a predominantly white space and deal with the challenges and politics that come with that.”

Sobia works as an administrative secretary, where she is one of two women of colour in her team. “When applying for the job, they highlighted diversity and inclusion as key to them as a company,” she says. “But once I started, I noticed I was the only South Asian woman on the team alongside a mixed-race woman and a team of predominantly white men”.

Sobia said this dynamic wasn’t one that she was unfamiliar with and she knew just what to expect. “This wasn’t my first rodeo, so I knew the offensive comments were coming – and it really didn’t take long.

“I’d get asked for curry recommendations, and would constantly be asked about my religion; I dealt with sexist comments and had to either ignore it and pretend I didn’t hear or grin and bear it, all of which was incredibly taxing for me,” says Sobia.

“Once the pandemic hit and we were working from home, as bad as it sounds, I experienced such relief.”

Sobia has been working for the company since 2019 and experienced a shift in her attitude and wellbeing once she began to work from home throughout 2020 and 2021. “Our conversations were limited to Zoom calls where we didn’t really discuss much beyond the work, which was great for me,” she says.

“It meant that I could have pleasant conversations with my colleagues and not worry about what sexist or borderline racist comment was coming my way and that made a real difference to how I felt about working for the first time in my career. But now that we are returning to the office five days a week, my feelings about going in and dealing with that type of behaviour have me really concerned and I’m not sure what to do.”

This preference for hybrid or remote working as a woman of colour is shared by Precious*, who works for a PR company.

“Working remotely gives me so much more space to focus on work, productivity and my skills,” she says. “I don’t worry about whether my skirt is too tight and draws attention to my curvaceous physique. I also don’t think about whether my new hairstyle is going to stir conversation in the office – and I don’t worry about being the only Black person in the room. The PR company I work for is culturally diverse, so I work with people who like me, and other people of colour, and we have a very small minority of white colleagues.”

Prior to the pandemic, Precious worked as a library administrative assistant in a small town in Switzerland, where she experienced constant microaggressions.

“The area I worked in was predominantly white Italian, so as an African, dark-skinned woman with a big afro, I often felt like the odd one out,” she admits.

“This led to microaggressions that were sometimes unintentional because of the lack of cultural diversity in the place I worked. My supervisor was lovely, but some of my colleagues were very culturally insensitive. I ended up distancing myself from my colleagues as much as possible and I spent most of my time shelving books or in the administrative office where I rarely had to speak to others. It was quite isolating, and it made me wish I could do my job at home instead. 

This experience wasn’t an isolated one, with Precious sharing that it’s something she has come to expect unless she is working in an office which is culturally diverse.

“I always expect microaggressions or unwelcomed comments. It’s weird to say, but even the way that I change my hair from an afro to locs and then back to an afro in a span of two weeks is a topic of conversation. That always made me uncomfortable because it was a reminder of my otherness,” she says.

“When the people I worked with were shocked that I was well-spoken and articulate, it was a reminder that people like me are expected to be the opposite. There was always pressure to be the best at everything I did and not to make any mistakes because I knew that I had a lot to prove.”

This constant pressure to be the best is something experienced by many Black women, and for Precious, working remotely provided a sense of relief where she could focus on putting her work first and not worrying about the conversations surrounding the way she looked or how she was expected to act.

“I’ve been working remotely for about a year and a half now, and I love it. At this stage, I wouldn’t be going back to the office because it makes me more productive, I’d be going back because I had to,” she admits.

“I’d have to meet clients in person and deal with potential microaggressions when they look at my long, eccentric locs and realise that I don’t look like the typical PR person. It would mean that I’d have to spend a lot more time adjusting my appearance to suit eurocentric standards for the sake of my career, and that is not something that I look forward to.”

These concerns are shared among many Black women, and as we transition back into a world where being in the office is becoming more frequent, companies must do what they can to challenge the problematic environments that make it difficult for women of colour to work without concern.

“I think a great way to change this dynamic in the workplace for women of colour is by starting with cultural sensitivity training,” says Precious. “It will help people see that the things they say and do can be misinterpreted and potentially cause POC colleagues distress and discomfort.

“Teach people to stop touching Black women’s hair, and more importantly, let go of the stereotypical ideas of what people of colour are “supposed” to be so that they can form healthier relationships with their colleagues. I think that would make office culture more comfortable.” 

Image: Getty

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