What it’s like being a Black woman in corporate Canada

OPINION: Early in my career, I was hired for my skill set and experience — and I shone. Then the microaggressions and career sabotage began
By Melissa Alice - Published on Feb 17, 2021
Social-media conversations among young Black professional women showed the author that her experience was typical. (Courtesy of Melissa Alice)



Thanks to the events of 2020, it seems that the Black experience in Canada has never been discussed so openly and honestly. And these conversations are finally starting to call out the impact of anti-Black racism in the corporate world.

According to a study by the BlackNorth Initiative and Boston Consulting Group, as of July 2020, Black Canadians are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-racialized Canadians (17 per cent versus 9 per cent), and for Black women, the number is even higher (19 per cent). University-educated Black Canadians earn an average of 80 cents for every dollar earned by their white peers. Wage discrimination and occupation segregation costs the Black community $1.2 billion each year. I would know. As a Black university-educated woman, I’ve encountered the devastating implications of anti-Black racism first-hand.

This month, I had the honour of participating in the BlackNorth Initiative’s inaugural Black History Month Talks virtual panel. Among the panellists — some of the most accomplished Black innovators in North America — I was the only woman, and I was grateful to have a platform where I could be heard. The theme was the legacy of Black entrepreneurship. The moderator asked me a question no one had ever asked me before, yet the answer has shaped so much of my adult life. Have I ever encountered anti-Black racism in professional settings, and how has it affected my life? I had only two minutes to answer during the panel, but it’s a perspective worth sharing over and over again.

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Imagine being a young professional right out of school, armed with a strong resumé full of relevant experience, fully bilingual in your nation’s two official languages — and excited about making a positive contribution to your future employer, your family as a first-generation citizen, your community, and society as a whole.

You land your first job and immediately dive in, determined to perform at a consistently high level. For the first year, you excel: you outperform your benchmarks, take on special projects, receive praise from peers and senior leadership, and perhaps even get a promotion.

After a while, the recognition wanes, as do your opportunities to take on high-profile projects that play to your core strengths and give you the visibility you need to progress in your career. The harder you work, it seems, the more your workplace experience deteriorates. Your manager starts to provide “constructive feedback” on things that have nothing to do with your performance. Often, you are now penalized for things other colleagues are free to do and even praised for. Your boss and other teammates receive all the credit for the projects you lead. But the final push toward the exit door comes when another department head wants to promote you over to their team and is blocked by your boss, human resources, or senior management — or all three.

This is the experience that I lived early in my career. Hired for my skill set, experience, and fit with the team, I shone during the “honeymoon” phase, something many Black women enjoy before the microaggressions and career sabotage begin. After I left the company I described above, I replayed work scenes again and again, dissecting every little opinion I’d shared, every little piece of feedback I’d tried to absorb, and asked myself, “What went wrong? What did I do?” I began to question myself and my abilities and to aim lower in my career. Perhaps I just wasn’t good enough. As I saw my non-Black friends blow past me in their careers, I accepted playing small for years. My career and income didn’t simply stagnate — they suffered.

It wasn’t until conversations among other young Black professional women got out in the open, thanks to social media, that I learned that what I’d experienced was a pattern many Black women experience. A pattern that shows up in every department, every workplace, every industry. 

By the time the call for more diverse and equitable workplaces had entered the mainstream, I had already put in years and thousands of dollars in personal and professional development — one-on-one coaching sessions, seminars, industry credentials. As my performance went up, and the awards started to accumulate again, I used my new-found confidence and authority to speak up and demand what I deserved from the organizations that I was helping make even more profitable. I had become so good at what I did, and so critical to the company’s success, that I became too good to ignore. Unlike many others from socioeconomic backgrounds different from mine, coasting was not an option.

Newly formed organizations and programs are trying to make sure that Black professional talent will no longer be overlooked or held back. The BlackNorth Initiative encourages Canadian businesses to sign a pledge to create opportunities within their companies for Black people. Such collectives as the Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism are working to create pathways for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour in the tech space. And NSBEHacks and the Jr. Economic Club of Canada’s Bay Street Bootcamp provide opportunities for skills building in finance and technology. An awareness of systemic barriers and a growing number of safe spaces for Black professionals to access the support, mentorship, and sponsorship they need to fully realize their potential will transform corporate Canada for the benefit of everyone.

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