A Simple Formula for Retaining and Supporting Black and Racialized Young Women At Work

When I graduated from Ryerson University with a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and Governance in 2018, I was ready to take on the world. But graduation was bittersweet; I was excited at the prospect of limitless opportunities, but frightened that nothing would enter my purview. 

Contrary to many of my peers, I had strict criteria for job applications because I was steadfast on putting my degree to work right away. My application filters limited my opportunities significantly, but that did not damper my attitude. I, like many other high performing racialized millennial women around me, wanted satisfying work. I wanted a role that would help move the dial and shift the narrative on racial and gender equity. 

I blocked out a lot of corporations or large institutions that were calling my name, using various seemingly inclusive tactics to attract young women like me. But I was adamant about not taking on a role that did not fit my personal values, which is an increasingly familiar pattern among young women who often hear horror stories of systemic discrimination and erasure about working in large institutions. From being silenced to pushed out when they speak up, Black, Indigenous, and racialized women are often dissatisfied with taking on roles in institutions that were not created to serve us. This was not a culture I, or many of my racialized young peers were interested in participating in, or changing. We had bigger, more complex issues we hoped to address.  

I eventually stepped into a project manager role at a small nonprofit serving youth. While most of my work was done independently, I often co-chaired meetings and had the final say on a lot of decisions. But that didn’t come without its own challenges. In this position, I was spoken over and spoken down to, and had my ideas dismissed often. Like many women, my first instinct was to internalize that external behaviour thinking “what am I doing wrong?”. I tried changing the language I used, the clothes I wore, and the way I presented myself in meetings. But none of it helped.

White people have a hard time processing my grief because I don’t express my emotions as openly compared to white women in public or professional settings. This makes it harder for them to empathize with my pain, because I’ve been conditioned to hide it all my life.

The nonprofit sector is primarily run by women, a fact that applied to my workplace as well. This meant that my negative experiences came from women, who were supposed to be my mentors and champions. It’s easy to forget that women too are capable of perpetuating patriarchy and sexism. Gender alone does not absolve someone of their oppressive behaviours; so regardless of your gender, you have to make a conscious decision to be anti-oppressive, to act in ways that uplift those around you, especially the ones who are facing multiple systemic challenges. For me, it was not just that I was a woman, it was also that I was a racialized young woman starting off my career, and brought a different perspective into the workplace, something my colleagues were not prepared to make room for. 

I had one manager who constantly berated me by telling me that “I never took ownership of my mistakes,” without offering any feedback or detailed explanation of what those mistakes were. After the challenging search for a job that fit my personal values, I was living a workplace horror story that left me confused and doubting my own knowledge and skills. What my manager really meant was that because I didn’t process mistakes in the same way she did, she could not accept that I understood that I made mistakes. I processed mistakes internally and wasn’t prepared to be vulnerable with her, which was totally okay. I had my boundaries and I wished to just get on with my work, which did not satisfy her.

This incident felt all too familiar. 

White people have a hard time processing my grief because I don’t express my emotions as openly compared to white women in public or professional settings. This makes it harder for them to empathize with my pain, because I’ve been conditioned to hide it all my life. We know that Black women are often viewed as “aggressive” or “difficult” when we display emotions or discomfort in the workplace, and that is something that I wanted to avoid in my career; but this double-standard was making it difficult for my manager to connect with me. 

The interaction with my manager isn’t unique to the nonprofit sector. In fact, this same incident felt like the moment when my experience of sexual violence was dismissed due to my lack of emotional displays — an issue that has been heavily documented and studied as it relates to Black women reporting experiences of sexual violence to law enforcement. That was when I realized that my “composure” was read as indifference, and my emotions were read as burdens. This cycle continued until I left the organization, unable to tolerate the misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey to describe the intersection of sexism and racism experienced by Black women. 

My story highlights a few key elements which contribute to a high turnover among racialized young women employees, why we leave when we see red flags and why we avoid working with organizations whose values seem to differ from us.

But how can we ensure that we support young Black, and racialized women at work as colleagues and employers? I’ve come up with a simple solution and even simpler acronym: ELAT. Engage, Listen, Act, Thank.  

Engage 

Engage Black and racialized young women in decision-making and form meaningful relationships with them. Move away from tokenism, and move towards having their thoughts, opinions and points heard. 

Listen 

Once you have built a meaningful connection, listen. I mean, really listen. What is this person saying — how can what they’re saying apply to your work? Consider their perspective and find ways to integrate their ideas in your work, and of course, give them credit.

Act 

If the first two steps are done well, you’ll find something of value to act upon. This step is simple, act on the idea, initiative or position. 

Thank 

Far too often the contributions of young women, and more specifically Black, Indigenous, and racialized young women, are overlooked. In meetings, in public or between colleagues, it’s important to recognize the work of young women and openly thank them for their contributions. I’m not speaking about letters of participation, I’m talking about significant achievements that are overlooked, and often attributed to others.

ELAT is a great starting point for engaging Black and racialized young women, but there’s a particular skill that you’ll need to really put this into practice; emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the key to understanding how to better support your racialized colleagues in the workplace. It will allow you to better connect with and understand the motivations and experiences of everyone in the workplace. 

Another key component of supporting racialized women is understanding systemic oppression. Without understanding how social identities intersect with one another, and shape the experiences of racialized young women, you cannot fully implement the ELAT model or the emotional intelligence skill set. Understanding systemic oppression will help you better implement the aforementioned frameworks and make meaningful contributions to the career journeys of young racialized women. 

With these simple engagement techniques and a commitment to understanding structural inequities, you can attract and retain racialized millennial women in your organization and avoid early workplace departures. 

About Jessica Ketwaroo-Green

Jessica Ketwaroo-Green is a gender equity and anti-racism advocate working to advance the social, political and economic position of women in Canada. Currently a project coordinator at WomanACT, Jessica is on a mission to reduce high-risk domestic violence in Toronto and in communities across the country through multi-disciplinary action and policy change. She is also the Director of Advocacy and Public Policy at the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce where she works strategically with non-governmental partners, community organizations and governments to influence policy, including crafting the first national child care strategy to ensure that all communities have access to affordable childcare.