Choosing mentors and making your voice heard: essential career advice for Black women

Written by Opeyemi and Raphael Sofoluke

In Twice As Hard: Navigating Black Stereotypes And Creating Space For Success, Opeyemi and Raphael Sofoluke expose the challenges Black professionals face in the workplace, and how to overcome them. Here, they share their advice for Black women looking to take the next step in their careers.

From the trappings of imposter syndrome to dealing with racist microaggressions and stereotypes, it’s no secret that Black people – and in particular, Black women – face a number of additional challenges when it comes to navigating and furthering their careers when compared to their white counterparts.

Indeed, just last month, a report entitled Driving Diversity And Inclusion In The Workplace from the recruitment consultancy Robert Walters revealed that Black professionals are twice as likely to be turned down for a pay rise than those who are white, and that half of Black women claim their career expectations are not being met by their employer – double the national average.  

It’s this kind of ongoing disparity that is the jumping-off point for a new book from the entrepreneurial couple Opeyemi and Raphael Sofoluke.  

The book, titled Twice As Hard: Navigating Black Stereotypes And Creating Space For Success, not only exposes the obstacles that limit opportunities for Black professional progress, but provides chapters-upon-chapters of advice on challenging racial stereotypes and building a successful career.

Here, Opeyemi and Raphael speak to Stylist about the book and the challenges faced by young, Black women today, and share their advice for making your mark in the workplace. Here’s what they had to say.  

What are the main challenges young Black women face in the workplace today? 

Opeyemi: “One of the many challenges that Black women face is getting recognition for the hard work they do. What you find in a lot of organisations is that, when it comes to promotion periods, it’s really hard for Black women to be seen and to be put forward for promotion. And that’s become even harder now when you think about how we’re working in a virtual world.

“A lot of the conversations I’ve had with women that I’ve mentored is how we can make them more visible. I find that Black women have to be so intentional about how they communicate the work that they do and the impact that they make, and more so now being in a virtual world where managers don’t get to see you in that group environment.

“I think added to that – when you think about the impact of Covid-19 – we know that the Black community was disproportionately impacted when compared to our white counterparts. So there’s also the added pressure on many Black families as a result of that. 

“Of course many people have been impacted regardless of race, but for the Black community specifically, there’s been that heavy impact. So how do you continue to show up for work despite some of the challenges you may be facing at home? And then I think when we also add that to the lens of being maybe a mother or a carer, a lot of Black women are juggling how they manage their home life alongside their work-life and still deliver in that space.”

Raphael: “There are a number of challenges that Black professionals and entrepreneurs go through which we talk a lot about in Twice As Hard. For example, we’ve got a whole chapter on navigating white spaces, and what we see is that a lot of Black professionals and entrepreneurs find it hard to fit into the work environment because a lot of work environments are catered towards a white audience.

“I think another problem Black women face in particular is dealing with some of the stereotypes associated with Black women, especially when it comes to being seen as aggressive. So Black women in leadership positions have to work to be seen as assertive but not necessarily aggressive.

“Black women also face the challenge of being judged based on their hair. The standard of professionalism in the workplace is based on the white image, so a lot of Black women struggle to bring their Afro hair or their braids to work.

Raphael and Opeyemi Sofoluke bring together their experiences and those of other Black professionals in their new book, Twice As Hard: Navigating Black Stereotypes And Creating Space For Success.

“I think doing it all virtually as well makes it even harder at the moment, especially for those who are starting new roles and new jobs and want to get to know their peers and others more deeply. That’s something that’s probably applicable to anyone starting a new company, but especially for Black professionals, it’s valuable to get to know other Black professionals.

“I write about this in a chapter about navigating white spaces, but when you’re a Black person entering a new office, within the first week or two you will probably walk around the office and be able to highlight the other Black people there because generally there’s not many. So, I think working virtually at the moment makes it harder to find out who else is Black in the organisation, and harder to look for mentors that have got to a senior position.”

What’s your advice for overcoming these challenges?

O: “One of my main pieces of advice would be to think about how you can brand yourself, even from home, because a lot of us are transitioning and people have moved careers during the pandemic. Part of that is being intentional about being seen – if you were in the office, you’d be able to walk by someone’s desk and say ‘oh, let’s go and grab a coffee,’ but now you need to be intentional about scheduling time with your colleagues and leaders for them to see what you’re doing, see who you are and make an impact that way.

“And along those lines, another piece of advice I would say is to continue to keep track and keep a record of the ways in which you’re making an impact. This way, when it comes to the end of year reviews, you’re able to say ‘hey, look at this, this is what’s been going on over the last year, and this is how I’ve contributed to our organisation’. Keep those receipts!

“Another thing I would encourage Black women to think about is how you can gather feedback – feedback is so effective, and not just from your peers but also from your partners, your stakeholders, people that you work with outside of your day-to-day. Even if your manager may not be able to see the impact you’re making, if you have feedback from other people you’re able to bring that and say ‘look, these are people I’ve been working with and this is what they’ve had to say about the work that I’m delivering’. 

“All of these kinds of things definitely help when it comes to thinking about your career and how to make an impact. If possible, if you have those relationships, also try to leverage advice and guidance from mentors and sponsors. 

“Finally, there are also books that you can read which highlight some of the mistakes women make and how to deal with them in a working environment. So, for example, Nice Girls Still Don’t Get The Corner Office is one that looks at how you play the game, how you act, how you think and encourages you to take a self-assessment to see where your strong areas are and any areas of development.”

R: “I think it’s very key, first of all, to define what you want from your career. In the book, we speak to a contributor called Shellye Archambeau, and she gave some great advice about how, when you get on a flight, you should know your destination. A lot of the time people enter the working world without knowing where they want to go, but it’s very important to plan out your career and know how you’re going to get there – how you’re going to fly there and what route to take. 

“It’s also really important to know what your personal brand is. When you leave the room, what do you want people to be saying about you? Is it that you’re a hard worker? That you’re a thinker? That you’re someone who goes above and beyond?

“And then finally, start looking at mentorships – and allies, as well. A key chapter in the book is about finding allies – a lot of the mentors that I’ve had haven’t been Black, but I’ve learned so much from some great allies who have helped me throughout my career. We also talk about coaches and sponsors as well – all of these things are really key.”

You both speak about the value of finding a mentor – how do you recommend going about this, and what kind of qualities do you think a good mentor should have?

O: “Firstly what I would say when it comes to mentorship is that, in this digital world, we have the opportunity to leverage various mediums when it comes to connecting with people. What I’ve learned over time is that there are so many valuable resources you can learn from online, whether it’s through TED talks or YouTube or following a leader that inspires you. So my first piece of advice would be to look for people who inspire you, and if these people are not easily accessible, identify what resources they have online that you can leverage.

“Now when it comes to actually finding someone to build that one-to-one relationship with, the first thing that I would say to someone is, what are you looking for in a mentor? Are you looking for help to progress your career and get to a particular level? If yes, then you want to find someone who’s already at that position. Are you looking to launch a business in a particular field? Again, you want to find someone who’s in a similar industry, who’s gone through those experiences.

“From there, it starts with building a relationship, and there are different ways you can do this. If they’re within your organisation and it’s someone you already know, it may be something as simple as putting time in their diary and trying to build a connection from an organic standpoint so you can see if you vibe and if you connect.

“There’s also the option of just saying to someone, ‘I would really love if you could mentor me,’ and just asking that question. Some leaders are open to it and have the capacity for it, while others don’t. So part of it is just putting yourself out there.

“Another way of doing it is thinking about whether there are any people you already have a relationship with that you can get closer to and push that relationship towards a mentorship. In the book, we reference the different kinds of mentors you can have – there’s the traditional format, with a senior person and a junior person, but then we also have other forms like peer to peer mentoring – being mentored by someone who’s like a friend, who you can learn from them but you can also teach them something. The most important thing to ask yourself is what you’re looking for in a mentor and then you can build from there.

“And remember –having a mentor isn’t the be-all and end-all. Often people that don’t have a mentor think ‘what am I going to do,’ but the great thing is we have Google, and there’s so much advice that can be found online.”

Twice As Hard: Navigating Black Stereotypes And Creating Space For Success is out now.

R: “In terms of the right attributes, you want someone who will understand you, who will push you to think and work harder than you would normally, and someone who’s done what you want to do before.

“Having a mentor that has gone through the failures, gone through all the challenges and the obstacles is really valuable. So for example, for a Black woman, having a Black mentor who is at a senior position who has gone through the microaggression, the unconscious biases and the stereotypes, who has been the only one in the room and has navigated and successfully built a career – that is probably the attributes you want to be looking for in someone. Someone who’s been there and done it, to help you not make the mistakes they made.”

What’s one piece of advice you would give to Black women at the start of their careers?

O: “I would say – no season is permanent. When you’re going through a challenging time, think – what is the lesson I can learn here? And just be strong – you will get through the challenging times. And then along those same lines, when you’re going through a great season, embrace those seasons and enjoy those seasons. 

“Life continually evolves. At the beginning of your career, one thing that is guaranteed is that there will be ups and downs, and no matter what season you’re in you just have to say to yourself, what can I take away from this? Add value as you move on in your career.”

R: “For young Black women in particular I would say, don’t be afraid to show who you are. Don’t be afraid to show who you are, be fearless, and understand that you deserve to be there.

“One of the reasons I say that is that another great conversation we had for the book with Shellye Archambeau was about imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is something that anyone can go through, Black or white, but research shows that Black women go through it more than anyone. So actually, it’s about making sure you know that you’re worthy of being in that space. And a tip on getting over imposter syndrome is just to remember that it’s almost like having a headache – everyone gets it, and you just have to learn how to overcome it and find a treatment that works for you.”

Twice As Hard: Navigating Black Stereotypes And Creating Space For Success is out now

The above interview has been edited and cut for clarity

Images of Raphael and Opeyemi: Francis Augusto

Book Cover: DK

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