Why Are Women of Color Excluded from Conversations about Work-Life Balance?

By Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

In the past three or four months we’ve seen the publication of a number of controversial articles regarding women and the idea of having it all or being perfect, including Why Women Should Stop Trying to be Perfect by Debora Spar and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much-discussed Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, both of which essentially discuss the seemingly never-ending quest for work-life balance – or as Slaughter writes, figuring out “how to combine professional success and satisfaction with a real commitment to family.” Both articles and many like them cover the same topics we’ve been reading about for years and despite the rapidly changing demographics of the U.S., both fail at being inclusive of women of color (WOC).

To be fair, Slaughter touches on the subject – slightly, writing that she is “well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic — highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place.” Clearly Slaughter can’t speak on experiences she hasn’t had, but acknowledging that she’s only speaking to – and for – a small percentage of women while skirting the issue of race doesn’t really convey that she truly understands her privilege. She continues:

“Millions of other working women face much more difficult life circumstances. Some are single mothers; many struggle to find any job; others support husbands who cannot find jobs. Many cope with a work-life in which good day care is either unavailable or very expensive; school schedules do not match work schedules; and schools themselves are failing to educate their children. Many of these women are worrying not about having it all, but rather about holding on to what they do have.”

Still, no real mention WOC or the unique challenges, hardships, and prejudices they face in academia and the workplace. So many of these types of articles discuss feminism and sisterhood, all while framing the discussion as if minority women don’t exist.

Not Everyone has the Same Kinds of Work-Life Challenges

On her website Authentic Organizations, CV Harquail hits the nail on the head: work-life issues are important to everyone, but not everyone has the same kinds of work-life challenges. The reason, she writes, why these conversations fail to be inclusive is because for so long, work-life advocates have been struggling with basic issues of awareness, requiring that they keep their arguments simple. In her post Work-Life Solutions and Important Differences: Let’s Get Inclusive, she writes:

“We are much less aware of the cultural, social and racial group differences among employees that are relevant to work-life challenges. These differences are still being glossed over, and occasionally ignored altogether. When colleagues remind us that we need to remember that people from different ethnic groups and social cultures have demands, norms and expectations that don’t fit with the ‘general’ or dominant culture, we nod our heads and say, ‘Yes, of course.’ But often we don’t know enough about the specific texture of these cultural, social and racial group differences to realize the kinds of challenges we should be talking about next.”

According to her research on work-life issues as they relate to WOC, Harquail identified four types of challenges that work differently for WOC than for employees who are part of the dominant culture, which she implies to mean white men. What’s not discussed is how the experiences of women of color play out differently than the experiences of white women in corporate America, but despite this major oversight, Harquail manages to provide thoughtful and interesting points.

According to Harquail, these are the four challenges WOC face.

Commonly held stereotypes about the “ideal worker,” which she defines as a person who puts work quality and work commitments ahead of personal interests. The ideal worker also demonstrates “professional” behavior that prioritizes the interests of the work environment. Harquail says that “stereotypes about women in general, and especially stereotypes about women of color, suggest that women of color are less likely than men to display the kind of work quality and work commitment, and personal comportment at work, that create the ‘ideal worker.’”

Secondly, women of color are “hyper visible,” which she says is the characteristic of being noticed simply because you stand out from the norm. Harquail writes that “in organizations where the majority of employees are white men, women of color are hyper-visible. Anything that women of color do at work, and particularly the flexible work arrangements that they may use to manage work-life tensions, will be noticed more than when those very same behaviors are demonstrated by men.”

Thirdly, women of color have a “qualitatively different experience in the cultural world of work,” meaning that “the kinds of task-related and interpersonal behavior expected of employees by others in their work community can create additional tensions for women of color. When women of color are connected to a cultural, social, or ethnic group where the dominant values and expectations conflict with those in their work organization, the woman of color employee must subordinate her personal, cultural self-expression to fit into the expected behavior in the work organization. This adds additional work-life stress, because the employee has to be two different people– one kind of person at work, and another kind of person at home.”

Lastly, Harquail writes that WOC are often “held to qualitatively different expectations by others in their social, cultural, and racial communities when they tried to resolve work demands in the non-work sphere.” In other words, the behavior expected of WOC at work may not be considered socially acceptable outside of work. The example Harquail provides is that of the WOC who places work-related demands ahead of family-related demands. In her circle, she may be seen as abandoning her family, “while white men making the same choices are seen as dedicated bread-winners.”

Crucial Conversations

It seems as if the well-meaning women leading the conversations regarding work-life balance in the media aren’t intentionally excluding WOC for malicious reasons. Rather, it seems as if it’s legitimately never crossed their minds that these issues affect minority women differently – or, if it has, they are unsure how to discuss the topic. According to Dr. Shanesha Brooks-Tatum, the issue is also that these conversations aren’t happening as often as they should among women of color.

Brooks-Tatum is the founder and co-chair of Atlanta, GA’s National Annual Black Women’s Life Balance and Wellness Conference, which she founded in 2011 after having multiple conversations with friends who like herself, failed to prioritize health, family, wellness, and self-care when juggling too many responsibilities and obligations at work. The first Conference focused on everything from transgenerational trauma and strategies for responding to stress, to healthy coping skills and black motherhood.

“Within our community, these aren’t conversations we have with each other,” said Brooks-Tatum, the eldest of six children, the only daughter, and the first in her family to graduate from college. “We see our mothers and aunts take on these extreme schedules of caring for their children and working and cleaning and cooking and basically being on the go for 24-hours straight and we normalize it and internalize it, doing the same things when we grow up and having the same health challenges at a young age and struggling to meet all of our obligations.”

In grad school, Brooks-Tatum struggled with work-life balance so fiercely that her health began to deteriorate, so in her second year of grad school she began to place importance on self-care and chose to spend her free time with friends who prioritized wellness.

Overlapping Challenges

For women of color, it’s not just about the guilt felt when you’re away from your children or whether or not your career aspirations should come before your desire to have a family. The issue of work-life balance is so much more complicated, because as Brooks-Tatum points out on her Conference’s website, “Black women in a variety of career fields face similar and overlapping challenges to their success: racial and gender discrimination, oppressive cultural expectations, and illness due to the resulting stress.” For Brooks-Tatum, the statistics regarding the health of black women are impossible to ignore, especially when discussing work-life balance.

“Heart disease, diabetes, depression, these issues affect black women in staggering numbers, so it’s very important to me that with the Conference, we focus on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual components of wellness. When we lose our grip on our physical health, it started with our mind; the imbalance begins in our mind and our feelings about ourselves and what we need or deserve. This really isn’t talked about enough,” Brooks-Tatum said. “The media demonizes black women for being obese without taking the time to understand the historical structures that create these circumstances. Historically, we have always been the caregivers – not just in our families, but in families that weren’t our own. We’ve been taught to put ourselves at the end of the line when it comes to receiving care.”

In 2013, the theme of the National Annual Black Women’s Life Balance and Wellness Conference will be Intergenerational Wellness. The 2012 Conference theme, Without Apology: Free & Balanced, really hit close to home for Brooks-Tatum, who like many women, was spreading herself too thin and finding it difficult to say no to those who’d never heard her say it before. She learned to prioritize, despite the resistance she encountered from those who were unhappy with her new refusal to over-extend herself or place her work/needs/wellness on the backburner. Technically it was a small life change but with big rewards – exactly the type she’s hoping her conference teaches other women to undertake.

“The Conference is an open and honest space for dialogue and sharing. I want all of us to be open about our challenges. This isn’t about pretending to be perfect and demanding that other women do the same,” Brooks-Tatum said. “These conversations are critical and I want them to be had more openly. You only have to look at the statistics to see the imbalances: black women make so much less than white women and because of their class and race, white women have so many more safety nets in their role as caregiver. They also don’t have to deal with subtle – or overt – racism that manifests itself in the workplace. I’m not claiming to have all the answers and I don’t think our conference can solve all of these issues, but just opening up these conversations is a good place to start.”

8 Responses

  1. tmana

    As a white Jewish woman who does not come from economic privilege, my perspective is that the dominant culture insists that we subjugate or ignore our traditions and assimilate completely into the dominant culture.

    Unless one comes from the degree of economic privilege that allows one to hire servants to mind the house and children (which is often determined by the schools and summer jobs on one’s resume, as well as the address at which one lives), a woman’s value as an employee is devalued by her value as primary caregiver to her family.

  2. Tina Vasquez

    Andrea Holyfield: Shanesha is currently planning for the 2013 conference and I believe she’s still looking for speakers and workshops. You can follow the link embedded in the article to her site and contact her directly.

  3. I am glad the idea is there, and I can follow your argument. I would like to know more about the issues, as they remain quite vague in the article. After all, white women also have to adapt to a male work-culture, and often have to leave part of their persona at home. I am sure it’s different for women of colour, but wondered how.

    Interestingly, the senior women of colour I have met here in the UK, seem very powerful. They are driven by a real need and urge to provide a family income, they are keen to improve chances in society for their children. They wouldn’t dream of doing a step back once they have a family. Unlike many white women, they wouldn’t leave that responsibility to their husbands.

    Also Sylvia Ann Hewlett has done some really interesting research, on women in emerging economies,
    and how the issues are different for them. And this often holds true for immigrants from those cultures too.

    For instance, childcare is often not an issue, as that is taken care of in the extended family. However aging parents is a huge issue, as they are expected to play a key role in that. It’s somehow harder to explain to your manager that you need to really go home for your mother, whereas a baby would perhaps be easier understood.

  4. True, tmama. And that dominant culture of feminism in the media dictates that all men are excluded from conversations of work-life balance. We are expected to be working drones, modern-day pack mules.

  5. Sonia Johnson

    I enjoyed this article tremendously. In my career thus far, I have been in positions where I was the only woman of color, and found that I had to prove myself (over and over and over) to be as good if not better than the white males, and sometimes, had to prove myself when compared to white women too.

    My point is that like many things in America as a whole, I have found that the distinctly heavier burdens to which WOC are subjected to the workplace is not a deliberate one. It is an extension of the continuing and widely held incorrect and damaging stereotypes sometimes believed in the larger society.

    I once asked a boss and a mentor (a wonderful and incredible woman)why I even though had so many advanced degrees, other qualifications, and much more experience than certain male members of the team, they appeared to be very mobile on the corporate ladder, and I was not.

    She told me that since I was a woman of color and consequently, was hyper visible, (she was white), that it was not just my job that was being monitored or watched because since I was hyper visible, people she had been informed, appeared to be more interested in determining if I had the social skills to schmooze and become a part of the club (men’s)!

    There is a heavier burden on very well educated and driven WOC in the workplace and elsewhere. However, I think that with mentors, and a better understanding of the workplace challenges we face, we can overcome these issues, and become quite successful.

    When I have an opportunity to mentor younger WOC, who have the same aspirations as I did, and still do. I always remind them that their own circumstance might be different from those of most of their female counterparts, and they, WOC’s, should be ready to stay the course and work harder than everyone else, unless, they will very easily be classified as lazy, anti social, aggressive, or too emotional.

    “Work very Hard”, I always tell them, but I also remind them be very cognizant of the social and political mores of the workplace because, more than any other group, WOC, are most impacted by those ‘extraneous” workplace dynamics. The ability to navigate those extraneous and entrenched workplace cultures and other tangibles, such as social and political mores at work, determine the success, in very very large part, of WOC in the workplace.

  6. melissa

    Hello Sonia, I think your comment gets to the heart of the issue – it’s just not fair that WOC are carrying the extra burden of proving themselves over and over while many times dealing with work/life issues that the majority of people in the office are not? How can we all create workplaces that work for everyone, not just the dominant group? And how can we do that inclusively, without expecting WOC to add yet another thing to their plate?

  7. Tina Vasquez

    DirkJohanson: 1. There is no “dominant culture of feminism in the media.” 2. It’s actually quite the opposite. The reason why working remotely and other flexible work options are becoming so prevalent is because men are now struggling with work-life balance because they are now more involved parents. For too long – and rather unfairly – work-life balance was framed as a women’s issue. This particular articles discusses work-life balance and women of color, but in the past – and for this very site – I’ve written about how how a lack of work-life balance adversely affects men, women, and families. 3. Your blog is really terrifying.