Why Many Women of Color Don’t Want to Return to the Office
A recent study of women of color working in the tech industry provides some insight into why many don’t want to return to the office. Their reasons range from overt acts of racism and sexism, as well as more subtle dynamics, including: feeling the need to self-monitor their behavior (i.e. not presenting themselves as “too Latina” or “too Black”); self-publishing so as not to present as too “intimidating”; be confused with administrative or custodial staff; feel the need to change their appearance to “fit in”; and more.
It’s no mystery why women are far more likely than men to insist on working remotely. What may need more explanation is why people of color — especially women of color — are so much less enthusiastic about on-site work than white people. One study found that only 3% of black knowledge workers wanted to return to full-time work locally, compared to 21% of white peers. Another found that black, Asian-American, and Latino knowledge workers all preferred hybrid or fully remote work at higher rates than whites.
Why? It offers respite. Working with white people can often be exhausting, as detailed in our new study on women of color in tech. As one multiracial woman in technology shared with us, “The day I think about still brings up feelings of extreme isolation and exhaustion. In the end, I was done. I was hurt, exhausted and furious. As I walked around, I realized that there was no one there to go to. I went back to my office, took my purse, went home and I I cried. I was so, so alone with my pain that day. I called in sick the next day and took a long weekend.
Overt racism and sexism are surprisingly pervasive in today’s workplaces: 81% of women of color in our tech study said they had experienced at least some racism, while 90% said the the same goes for sexism. A multiracial woman said she heard racist comments because her colleagues assumed she was white. She told Us that “it can make people literally take a step back,” when she tells them she’s a person of color.
More subtle dynamics are also at play. Research shows that authoritative women must constantly monitor and modify their own behavior in order to be promoted — and this study doesn’t even take into account how race exacerbates this effect. One Latina said, “If you come across as too Latina or too Black in the workplace, that could be a barrier for your white co-workers, so you kind of have to watch that.”
Part of the reason is the tightrope people of color have to walk. Being seen as disengaged isn’t a good career decision, but behavior that would be seen as a career-enhancing passion for a white man’s business may not be welcomed when it comes from people of color. “I never felt like it was right for me to show emotion in any space,” said an African-American woman. “And it doesn’t matter what the emotion is – being angry, being sad, being disappointed. Everything must be calculated according to how I react.
Other women said they were self-publishing so they wouldn’t be seen as “intimidating.” Research shows that whites tend to see blacks as angry (even when they’re not) and that whites penalize dominant behavior among Asian Americans. Latina women told us in interviews that they were tired of being stereotyped as “feisty.” When one woman protested and said, “Stop calling me feisty,” she said she could “feel the exchanged looks going across the room, like, ‘Oh, she’s doing it again.’ No wonder people want to work from home, so they can walk the block.
Another dynamic involves status: More than two-thirds of women of color in our survey said they had been mistaken for administrators or custodial staff. An indigenous woman described the difficulties she encountered in meetings outside of her team: “Twice last week someone called me the assistant. It’s like okay, let me introduce myself, [I’m] Associate Product Manager. I’m number two to make decisions for all of our mobile products. This problem is easily solved in remote meetings, where software like Zoom allows users to add their title next to their name.
And then there’s the question of what’s considered “professional” attire: 79% of women of color in our survey said they had to change their appearance or demeanor to fit in at work. “While everyone wears jeans and tennis shoes to work, I always make sure to always wear pants and heels so people can visually see that I take my professionalism seriously,” said an Afro woman. -American.
Finally, since people of color literally have to spend more time at work, they may be more drawn to working remotely to eliminate commuting time. Amazingly, 95% of women of color in our tech industry survey say they had to prove themselves over and over again to gain the same recognition that is automatically bestowed upon others. We saw similar results in a previous study of women of color in the engineering industry. A black woman told us, “You watch your face, you watch your tone, your response. Write emails five or six times to make sure, sending them to people you trust. “Hey, does it have a tone you can read?” It’s a lot of work to put on a professional face. Another described how the only other black supervisor at her company sent emails containing grammatical errors. “And so eventually, I was like, ‘Don’t send that – let me review it first,'” she said, in order to avoid them both looking bad. This pattern of bias is known as “comparison threat”.
In short, the office improves the work experience of some people while it corrodes that of others. To quote WEB Du Bois’: “It’s a special sensation, this double consciousness, this feeling of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul against the yardstick of a world which looks on with amused contempt and damage.”
White people have hopefully learned a lot about double consciousness since the murder of George Floyd, but they need to learn a lot more. Understanding why people of color are reluctant to return to work locally is a good first step. Our research focused on women of color, but a 2020 study found black men to be the group least likely to want to return full-time. So what you just read is only half of the depressing story of how race plays out in today’s workplace.