Women of colour are being pushed out of supposedly progressive workplaces and not enough people are asking why.
As an employer, as well as a university that hosts various social justice-based clubs, groups and services, UBC needs to join the conversation. We need to talk about how social justice communities are failing women of colour, losing valuable talent and causing harm within the same populations they aim to serve.
Last year, a graphic from the Centre of Community Organizations went viral on Twitter. It was called “The ‘Problem’ of Women of Colour in the Workplace” and it depicted the life cycle of a woman of colour within an organization, from the moment she enters to the moment she leaves.
The graphic made its way around the internet because it resonated with people. When I first came across it, I didn’t pay it too much attention. But a year later, after going through something similar at my own workplace, I found myself coming back to it again. I was surprised by how familiar it was, not just in relation to my own experiences but to stories I’d heard from other women of colour over the past few months who had either left their jobs or were thinking of leaving their jobs for similar reasons.
When I started working at a non-profit, youth-based organization, I was passionate about the work and ready to make a change. I didn’t expect to be leaving less than a year later. But harmful behaviours from someone in power created a toxic environment in which I was unable to get work done, and my mental and physical health were being affected in a very tangible way. I spent months telling myself it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, even going through formal reporting procedures which seemed to have little to no effect on the situation. It wasn’t until I heard the stories of others that I realized my experience was indicative of a pattern and I decided I couldn’t be a part of it anymore.
Right around the time I quit my job, #NotSoEqualVoice started trending on Twitter after three women of colour were fired for from Equal Voice, an organization which aims to empower women in politics. Cherie Wong, Leila Moumouni-Tchouassi and Shanese Steele shared their criticisms of the organization — in particular, its issues around race — both internally and externally before being fired for “harassment and defamation” of the organization and the executive director.
As Wong, Moumouni-Tchouassi and Steele continued to share their experiences online, other women of colour began to chime in. Many had similar experiences: they had noticed problems in their workplace, attempted to make change through internal channels and failed to see it happen. Whether by being fired, bogged down or burned out, these women left the organizations.
These aren’t isolated incidents and it’s about time we start paying attention to the systems in place that allow this to continue. There are questions we need to be asking — and loudly. How do we hold those in power or leadership positions accountable? What happens when those accountability structures fail? How do we account for the other power dynamics at play, such as — but not limited to — race and gender?
UBC, like any other institution, needs to be paying attention to these dynamics and how they replicate themselves not only in workplaces within the university, but also in student societies, clubs and classrooms.
We need to move beyond conversations of representation and interrogate who actually holds power. It’s not enough to see diverse faces included. They also need to be heard, valued and have avenues for voicing criticism and feedback that may, at times, be difficult to hear.
Of course, there are repercussions for those who speak up. What happened to the women at Equal Voice is perhaps a more extreme, public example of what these repercussions can look like. They are often subtler. Not being looked at for promotions, being given less responsibility, having your voice pushed further to the margins within your own organization and gaining a reputation for being “difficult” are just a few of the ways in which women of colour are punished for speaking up. Finding women of colour to speak publicly about their experiences is challenging, because it requires a great deal of risk.
That doesn’t mean we aren’t talking. Listen closely next time you’re on campus and you’ll hear the whispers, shared conversations with friends over coffee or unintentional support groups in the library. Ask your racialized friends how they’re doing. Have uncomfortable conversations and listen, really listen — we have a lot to say.
Tanvi Bhatia is a MFA student entering her first year. The opinions expressed are solely her own.