How to Advocate for Yourself at Work as a WOC

"If we don't do it, chances are nobody else will. Which means we'll get left out and left behind."

No matter how old we are or how long we’ve been working, we all have questions when it comes to careers—from how to respond to a rejection letter to learning to say no when a role isn’t a good fit. That’s where Career Counselor comes in. In this weekly series, we connect with experts to answer all of your work-related questions. Because while we don’t all have the luxury of a career coach, we still deserve to grow in our careers.

It might be 2020, but many work environments still feel like they’re in the Stone Age. According to a 2018 study by women-inclusive community Lean In in partnership with McKinsey & Company, one in five women reported being one of the only women in their offices. And just one in 25 women of color is in a leadership position. This lack of inclusion at work not only prevents women of color from climbing the ranks but also from advocating for themselves in any capacity.

Too many WOC aren’t being given the same opportunities as others in their field, and this issue clearly needs to end. But until companies change their ways, WOC will have to continue to advocate for themselves to feel seen and heard. As Cynthia Pong, JD, career coach and author of Don’t Stay in Your Lane: The Career Change Guide for Women of Color, says, “If we don’t do it, chances are nobody else will. Which means we’ll get left out and left behind.”

It’s crucial for women, especially WOC, to stand up for themselves, their ideas, and their dreams—and if you want to know how, well, you came to the right place. We connected with a few career experts to find out exactly how WOC should advocate for themselves at work. Scroll below to see what they had to say.

HelloGiggles (HG): How can WOC stand up for themselves when they feel like they’re not being heard at work?

“Three things:

“Continue to speak up. Use an amplification trick in meetings, explained by Keita Williams. This is where you pre-meet with one of your allies and agree to back each other up on what you’re going to say in the meeting in a specific progression so that what you say gets repeated with proper attribution a series of times. If you stop speaking up, you’re signaling that you no longer have anything important to say, which is not the message you want to be sending. I know it can be really tough and demoralizing, but consistency is key here.

Find allies at work. In order to accomplish #1, you may need to build and strengthen relationships with colleagues who can be your allies. There’s power in numbers, so look for potential allies starting at your level and branching out from there.

“Invest in people who are in positions of power. Focus less on those who aren’t seeing and hearing you, and find others in positions of power who will see and hear you. Invest in building relationships with those folks. They are potential sponsors and champions of you, so start planting those seeds today.

“Also, it’s never too early to start building your own thought leadership, both at and outside of work. There are many places where you can do this: Medium, LinkedIn, your social media channels. Don’t try to build a presence on all of them; pick one to start. Begin writing or speaking in videos on that platform, and you can grow it from there once you’ve built yourself a foundation.”

— Pong

how to advocate for yourself at work

HG: What are some skillsets WOC can use to advocate for themselves on a daily basis?

“You should get really good at saying ‘no.’ The ability to say no to people and things that are depleting your energy, taking advantage of your kindness, or not helping you grow is an important way to advocate for yourself in your career. Too often, women of color are taught that they should just be grateful for the opportunities they have and they should not rock the boat. That kind of thinking is what causes many of us to be burnt out and resentful of our work. Learn to say no, unapologetically, to the things that aren’t serving you so that you can make room for the things that are.”

Dorianne St Fleur, career and leadership coach

HG: What are some nonverbal ways WOC can advocate for themselves? 

Being present and showing up. Physically (virtually) being in places where decisions are being made. This means you have to find out what these spaces are first. Showing up matters to people, and if they see you consistently showing up, they interpret that as you caring. And that makes you stand out to them as a leader.

“Taking up space and not allowing yourself to be marginalized. It’s harder in virtual spaces because everyone’s confined to their box on the video conference screen, but—to the extent you’re able to—make sure people can still see you clearly, that you’re well lit, that you’re centered on your screen, that you’re using a virtual background that you love and gives you confidence, or that your actual background makes you feel strong and confident. These things can help demonstrate that you’re serious about being taken seriously.

“Making sure you exude confidence. This is often a tough one for us as women of color because we are socialized in specific ways to, in a sense, self-disempower. Prepare before the meeting or gathering so that you feel good and firm in your belief in yourself. Continually remind yourself of everything that you bring to the table (past accomplishments, your particular skill set, your varied experience). People can sense what you’re putting out there. Make sure you’re sending the messages you want to be sending.”

— Pong

how to advocate for yourself at work as WOC

HG: What are some things WOC can do outside of their jobs to help their growth at work?

“Find a mentor. I always recommend cultivating networks that include people in leadership roles inside and outside of your company. We often talk about the value of mentoring, but you may not always have a formal mentoring relationship in place when you need it the most. That’s why maintaining networks throughout your career is so important. There will be times when you need connections you can lean on for strategic advice to overcome obstacles.  

“Find a support group. In addition, who you hang with matters. Surround yourself with people who can help you push forwards. Ask the people you know and respect for recommendations on resources that align with your area of work. Chances are you’ll learn about a meetup or podcast or book that can spark something meaningful. Navigating your career is hard. There are times when challenging circumstances will make it feel next to impossible. That’s why we all need a support system that allows us to discuss our hopes, fears, and goals without the fear of judgment. Identifying a trusted source of inspiration, motivation, and direction is priceless.

“Ask your job about training courses. Finally, it’s always worth asking if your company has a professional development budget you can access for coaching, training, or courses to help you advance. Working with a coach will help you troubleshoot and strategize a way forward that is tailored to your specific goals.” 

Octavia Goredema, award-winning career coach and founder of Twenty Ten Agency

HG: How can WOC make their value known to their coworkers or managers?

“The key to self-confidence and self-worth is to realize it does not come from external sources. Sure, it feels good when your manager or coworkers recognize your contributions and acknowledge your achievements, but if you’re solely relying on others to make you feel good about the work you do, then it will be hard to maintain your confidence in those moments when no one is singing your praises. Unfortunately, women of color are less likely to receive the level of accolades and praise as their white counterparts; therefore, it’s important to be able to praise yourself. I suggest keeping track of all your wins (big or small) in a ‘brag folder’ so that you can always go back and revisit when you’re feeling like your confidence could use a boost.”

— St Fleur

“Save your achievements on your phone. Drop it on your desktop. Keep it in your purse. Whatever works; just make sure you look at your accomplishments often. It can be easy to assume your manager will remember all the amazing things you’ve done. That assumption is wrong. Be ready to articulate the standout highlights that truly matter.”

— Goredema

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