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
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?
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!?