Take off the mask: 4 keys to honoring your diversity at work

Have you ever felt like despite all the noise around diversity and inclusion, your own diversity at work feels like an obstacle? From the way you wear your hair, to the accent in your voice, or your sexuality, you may have felt like your “difference” made you an outcast. That maybe it was best to wear a mask, and conceal the “extra” diversity that could impair your ability to climb the corporate ladder, get the business loan, make the right contacts, or simply be respected as a valuable colleague.

Don’t get me wrong, most of us wear masks, especially in a professional and/or corporate setting. Just try and compare your boisterous voice at the family cookout last weekend, with your “prim and proper” intonation at the Board meeting. I’ll leave some of the other choice words out….And there’s no shame about it, either. Different contexts sometimes require different parts of our personality. The problem, especially for working women and minorities, occurs when the “mask” becomes a semi-permanent (or permanent) fixture of our careers and lives. When it becomes too hard to be who we truly are and remain authentic. When at times, we’ve even lost sight of who we are, what matters to us, what makes us us, happy, fulfilled, and all the way together…

I remember times at the beginning of my corporate career when I would feel so intimidated that the pitch of my voice would go up several octaves every time I had to speak up. I can also recall the times when sharing that I was born and raised in Senegal was followed by a loud silence in the room, after which I questioned if I should ever reveal this at work again.

There are times when corporate pressure and the fear to lose a paycheck can really make you get out of your true character. Many succumb to this pressure daily, compromising, changing who they are, from the pitch of their voices to the decisions they make on the job. No judgment here, the reality is more complex than we see on the surface, especially when your mortgage payment, kids’ tuition and car note hang in the balance. All of this can make it challenging to take off our corporate and/or professional masks, and really show up authentically in the workplace. This is especially true for working women and minorities, who may stand close to the edge of privilege.

Yet, there is a cost to not honoring your diversity in the workplace. It may be the silent cost of self-betrayal and the resulting lack of fulfillment that ensues. It may also be the lack of confidence from yourself and others. However, as terrifying as it may be, there are ways to honoring your diversity at work and enjoying a more fulfilling career:

  1. Show up as you are

I was recently listening to a podcast during which an African-American executive woman revealed that wearing her hair in braids at work also gave permission to other women like her to do the same. I remember struggling with my decision to wear my hair natural when I first transitioned to my natural curls. Would “they” be taken aback by my appearance? Would this have a negative impact on my career? Years later, I realize going natural was not just the best decision for me, but it was the best decision for my career. Any place that I would not fit in because of the way I looked was not for me…

So show up as you are. Don’t be afraid to wear your true hair, origin, accent or anything else that makes you you. It’s the best way to figure out where you fit in, and what environments are the most mutually beneficially to you.

  • When in doubt, do not hide

One of the most damaging pieces of advice I was ever given, especially as a woman of color, is: “Keep your head down and work hard.” You may also have received the same piece of advice. Over the years, I realized that as working women, and especially as women of color, we’re encouraged to hide behind our performance. We’re tacitly prompted to deny our uniqueness behind longer hours, more masculine attitudes, and the appearance of perfection. Or we’re warned to be cautious and make ourselves invisible.

When in doubt, refrain from hiding who you are. Refrain from shrinking and becoming invisible. Put your head up and make your presence be felt. Don’t just work hard, speak up for yourself too. Allow yourself to take space.

  • Be the example of diversity you need

I mentioned earlier the example of the African-American executive who by wearing braids, implicitly gave other Black women in her company permission to do the same. I’ve learnt that honoring your diversity also means putting it to work at the service of a cause greater than yourself. You may be the only image of diversity that some people will see, or one of a few.

You may be the reason why your fellow Latina sister may feel empowered to speak up at the meeting. Your very presence in the room may inspire a young Black girl to start her own business or go for the career of her dreams. You may just be the example of diversity you need yourself. And that is honoring your own diversity…

  • Be willing to walk

Sometimes, honoring your diversity also means walking away from environments and places that stifle it. It’s understanding that you can better honor the truth of who you are somewhere else. It’s a painful, but liberating realization.

In all cases, take the lessons you’ve learned with you, let go of any bitterness and resentment and continue on your own journey.

Are you committed to taking off the mask and honoring your own diversity?

The Corporate Sis.