Magazine article Working Mother

Keeping It Real

Magazine article Working Mother

Keeping It Real

Article excerpt

the first day Mary Gofer wore braids to work, she was nervous. She'd spent ten years at American Electric Power just trying to blend in, with her hair relaxed stick straight, dressed in the corporate uniform of navy blue suit and pencil tie. "I started at AEP in 1976. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964," says Mary. "Technically, African Americans had only been human for twelve years. I felt that I had to assimilate." For Mary, then a manager at the Columbus, OH, firm, conforming meant concealing a key part of herself: her culture. She blended in so welt that when she spoke up in meetings with her white colleagues, nobody paid attention. By assimilating, she essentially rendered herself invisible.

In 1986, Mary had an epiphany. Her s-year-old daughter, Ayana, was being shunned by her mainly white classmates because of her dark skin. To instill a sense of pride, Mary took Ayana to a local African cultural center. "I felt so hypocritical because here I was, trying to teach her the value of her culture, and I was stifling all that within myself," she says. "I had to dig deep and ask myself, 'How can you expect her to model these behaviors that you're saying are so valuable when you're not doing it yourself?1"

Like Mary, many women of color today believe that being their true selves will make it difficult for their colleagues to accept them and will hurt their chances of getting promoted. Many companies, recognizing the richness that diversity provides, are having candid conversations about ways to make minority employees feel accepted and happy. But many women of color say that racism still exists, and that they need to fight negative stereotypes to legitimize their presence in corporate America. "Wherever there's a majority corporate culture that seems difficult to infiltrate, there's a pressure to comply," says executive coach Jane Hyun, author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. Whether that means stifling an accent or straightening hair, the goal is to make white colleagues and bosses comfortable by appearing to be just like them.

According to polling results from Working Mother Media's 2006 Multicultural Conference, 55 percent of black women said they can't be themselves at work, followed by 29 percent of Latinas and 27 percent of Asian-American women. This focus on fitting in can affect performance, not to mention morale. Experts suggest that the pressure to conform often comes not from external sources but from within: "People aren't closing the door on us as much as we're expecting them to," says Atlanta, GA-based professional coach Kelly Jones. If this is the case, how can women move beyond feeling forced to choose between dual identities-one cultural, one corporate-and be themselves?

Fitting in, collard greens and all

The key to being yourself at work is fit. Six years ago, Katika Jones was the only African-American woman in the New York City office of a small merchant bank and felt the "energy" was such that she couldn't present her real self: "I had to hide my blackness. I was careful to stay out of conversations that involved politics or race, and I stopped eating certain foods at work because I once brought in collard greens and had people ask, 'What is that? Why does it smell like that?'"

Last year, Katika decided to find a company that truly embraced diversity. She's now an administrative coordinator at Citigroup, where she feels free to celebrate her heritage, down to wearing her dread-locked hair in sculptured styles. "I would have enjoyed work more and been more efficient at my previous job if I hadn't been so concerned about standing out," she says. "Now I'm able to focus on my work because I'm not worried about being something other than myself."

When it comes to finding the right fit, Kelly Jones says, "Consider who you really are and ask yourself if the company is aligned with your values." That's how Carla Harris picked New York City-based Morgan Stanley over other firms she interviewed with. …

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