The Constant Exhaustion of Being a Minority

The Constant Exhaustion of Being a Minority

I recently listened to a podcast where a New York Times journalist interviewed employees at Conde Nast about corporate culture at a company famous for being predominantly white and upper class. The journalist focused on one employee in particular: a black woman who served as the personal assistant to one of the chief directors. The personal assistant said she was treated well, her opinions were heard, and she was given the utmost respect from her boss and colleagues.

Yet in the end, after a year and to the shock of her colleagues and boss, she resigned.

“It was exhausting,” she told the journalist. “I had to keep up an image and constantly adjust myself to fit into a culture where I honestly felt like I didn’t belong. Although everyone was nice and no wrong in particular was done to me, being that mentally active on a daily basis just to blend in was draining. I didn’t have a sense of community there, and I knew I never would.”

I could resonate with her words, because I’m finding myself in the same boat at my current job.

My latest role is in the exciting new industry of Fintech, which is where the Finance and Tech world combine to change the way the world does banking. In other words, I joined an amalgamation of the most male and white dominated industries combined into one — and it was evident on day one.

Surviving in a Man’s World

Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My team is a small group of about ten people, and we make up one of the most senior groups at the company. Half of my team is comprised of c-suite leaders and we make the big strategic decisions about how to expand the business and what it takes to get there.

I knew my team would be as diverse as a loaf of wonderbread, but I was still disappointed to find that I was the only woman on the team and the only minority (which is sad, considering I’m only a “half” minority as a half-Asian).

The first few weeks at my job involved being constantly left out of email chains and important meetings. Although I told myself that this exclusion was due to my newness or my lack of seniority, I couldn’t shake a certain idea from my head: if I were a good looking and outspoken white guy who could talk sports with the c-suite team, would I be included in more meetings?

In the beginning, many in-person meetings made me uncomfortable. I was honestly hoping that the stereotypes from movies and TV were merely just stereotypes, but I noticed that my team often bonded in closed-door “bro chats,” where they talked sports and made golfing plans. I found it difficult to crack open the door and join conversations about the latest NBA playoff game or comment on how minor league baseball was heating up.

Furthermore, because I’m now working in a red state, none of my senior leadership wanted to wear masks. Even before the vaccine was widespread, the leadership team gathered us in small meeting rooms with closed doors (and no ventilation) and all the men would take off their masks and kick back. Not only was I the lone woman in these meetings — but I was also singled out for being the only one who refused to take off my mask before vaccination.

My senior leadership treats me with respect. They are kind to me. We have pleasant conversations. There have been no incidents that would warrant any kind of red flag (besides the mask thing).

But dear God, am I exhausted. It’s a struggle trying to fit in. In this fintech world of men, I am tired of adjusting to a culture where I honestly feel like I don’t belong.

It’s Difficult to be the Change You Want to See

During the first few weeks of my job, I was approached by the local state government about an international role I applied to last year. The female director said I left an impression on our last interview and that, if I were interested, she wanted to hire me for a new opening on her team. The team was a mix of male and female (although still white), but felt like a warm and welcoming family that wanted to bring another sibling to the team. With the utmost of sincerity and care, she told me that my bright and global personality would be the perfect addition to the team.

The downside? A literal half cut in salary and little opportunity for promotion.

“And this is how the cycle repeats,” my husband said as we discussed the options. “You said you would feel more comfortable with this warm and welcoming team at the local government, especially because there are more women — but that means when you leave, there is one less woman at your fintech company, and that industry and company will continue to be male dominated. The fintech job is more prestigious and higher paying, but there are more hurdles to overcome since you are a woman in a man’s world.”

It’s hard for women, or minorities in general, to succeed in a field where a majority crowd leads the pack. Whether you’re black in a white world, or female in a man’s domain — there is little room for comfort, and that road to success is rocky and daunting. On the path of least resistance, you need grit, endurance, and the gumption to move forward and succeed so that you can be the difference you want to see.

Although it was one of the most difficult decisions of my life, I turned down the local government job.

But really now — is this exhaustion worth it?

Me at at my last two jobs — burnt out to hell
Free Clip Art, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not new to being a lone minority within a majority. Throughout all my jobs in China and Japan, I was the only Westerner employed at my various companies. Being the ugly duckling, or the puzzle piece that didn’t fit, is something I’m very much used to.

However, at these jobs I had at least one boss, mentor or colleague to lean on and learn from when times got tough. As I mentioned in previous posts, I had kickass female bosses who took me under their wing and helped me navigate a foreign and male dominated work environment.

At my current role I am concerned about whether I will ever find that shoulder to lean on or that hand who will help me up. Much like the former employee at Conde Nast, I wonder if the exhaustion will suck me dry. I can easily see myself becoming another typical statistic: an educated and determined woman dropping out of the work force and leaving a potentially powerful career.

Whether it’s at my current job or in the future, I hope I can be a mentor to other minorities who struggle in the workplace. I want to create community. Diversity. A new place where people can feel welcome and flourish.

Have you had a similar experience being a minority in your workplace? Any tips to overcome this torture!?

8 thoughts on “The Constant Exhaustion of Being a Minority

  1. Oh, man, Mary! What a hard choice. Being the first is really rough. But if you don’t stick it out, then the bros are all, “Yeah, see? Women just aren’t cut out for this.” And of course it’s not THEIR failure to change the culture of the company. So frustrating.

    Golf? Seriously? Don’t these guys know that golf is beyond passé? Cycling is the new white male sport.

    1. Stickin it out *is* rough, but hey, if I don’t make it I can at least say I tried. Maybe I should do it the old fashioned techie way and drop out of this company to start my own, ha!

      Yeah, I’m so afraid that I’ll quit and they will shake their heads and end up hiring a dude in the end. Thus the cycle repeats. I hope I can stick it out. Honestly it’s not all bad, but if I had even one female colleague on my team I would feel so much better.

      Hahaha!! Cycling totally is the new white male sport. In Utah they play pickle ball, which is just kinda strange. Anyway, for a startup my company is still quite old school so it is still very ‘golf’ centric. I feel like if I could play golf I would be in so many inner circles. Sigh! Why am I not into sports?!

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. I’m sorry you’re having a hard time fitting in – unfortunately, we’ve all been there in one capacity or another, whether it’s at a school or particular classroom or job. And it’s important to feel welcomed, but even though as illustrated by your experience or the woman in the podcast, you might still feel like something’s missing or that you’ll never quite have that sense of belonging.

    I suppose then you have to decide whether or not ‘feeling part of the group’ is important to you, Mary. Another woman in your company might fit in just fine, she might enjoy golf, sports talk, etc. And this isn’t a reflection of you or them, or this imaginary woman, it is what it is. I’ve certainly been in situations where the only other Asian woman and I don’t hit it off.

    Sometimes, we’re at a job and there’s that one person who is sensitive to you and you get along and other times, there isn’t. I totally get that. For my last two jobs there’s been that ONE person and they’ve been lifesavers!!! Funnily, they’re both British men. Because as much as I’d love to bond with another woman, they’re not around or the cultural difference is too big for us. Relationships are two way streets and I tell myself not everyone is interested in me. 😛

    But back to your situation, if being part of the group is important (sharing the same values, bonding, etc) then I’d chase that. It’s important to me and that’s one of the reasons why I’m leaving my current job. Good luck, xo

    1. Yes, you make really good points Lani. I can totally see another woman getting hired and then we end up at each other’s throats. Just because the other person is also a minority doesn’t mean that everything will go peachy. This is the first job I’ve had where I’ve felt really left out and excluded, and maybe it’s more office dynamic than demographics, but I can’t help but wonder if those two things go hand in hand.

      Anyway, you’re right, there is just some secret sauce to some jobs that create a great work environment. I had past jobs where I fit in so seamlessly and I could truly be myself — while there are other jobs (like this one) where I am always questioning whether I’m doing enough or if I need to change my behavior to better fit in. I really hope that I can find at least one “lifesaver” colleague in this company, female or not! The lifesaver colleague is VITAL to survival!! Unfortunately I don’t think that will happen, but one can hope that maybe amongst our new hires there will be someone I click with…

      Oh man you’re leaving your current job!?!? What happened? Maybe a blogpost will come soon with details? Best of luck to you Lani!! Keep us posted!

      1. Work environments are everything so I understand your frustration and unhappiness with the situation.

        Over here, because it’s such a transient population I’ve definitely gotten the “let’s wait and see if she sticks around” vibe.

        Folks also are scared to put themselves out there as well, even if they’re part of the pack. So who knows? It’s hard to be open-minded, give ppl the benefit of the doubt, read minds, and trust your intuition without driving yourself crazy! 😛

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