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Notes on Microaggressions From a Black Woman in Finance

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Growing up in a small town in the South, I was known in school as “the smart Black girl,” who made straight A’s in every subject. When you’re the only minority in the room, you become keenly aware of the responsibility that comes with it. You are in charge of the paradigm being created, and it is your job to represent well in all situations because, ultimately, it is not about you; it’s about those who come after you.

I embraced that responsibility through business school, and into my first job on Wall Street. The significance of embarking on a career in finance—or the business of money—was all too real for me. History clearly shows that our country would not be the economic power it is if it had not gotten a jumpstart from slavery-assisted agricultural success in the 19th century or immigrant-assisted industrial dominance in the 20th.

Firmly in the driver’s seat of America’s capitalist machine, Wall Street has steered the direction of the country’s economy since before the United States was formally founded. To work in an industry so close to the money would help nip the racism problem in the proverbial bud by allowing us to share in the wealth.

Firms in the industry tout the benefits of, and their desire for, diversity. Diversity of thought breaks up groupthink and makes for better investment decisions, they say. So I thought I would be embraced by the investment community for my background—an African-American female English major with a quantitatively-focused advanced degree—which, to me, seemed unique, almost unicorn-like.

When I walked into my office at a private equity investment firm in New York on my first day, I felt powerful. I was armed with MBA knowledge and determination to represent well.

When one of my colleagues told me, “Don’t worry about contributing, just focus on learning,” I listened. If representing well meant learning as much as I could, by all means, I would learn everything. I sat in meetings eagerly attentive, taking notes on the partners’ processes and expecting to be trained in their ways rather than speaking up when I knew that I could add value. But that training never happened, and I kept quiet because I didn’t want to be seen as overly eager.

Six months into my tenure, that same colleague was promoted. When he assigned me a financial model that I had never done before, I asked him for guidance. He told me to try to do it on my own then come back to him if I needed help, an instruction befitting my independent nature. I put the model together as best I could, then emailed it to him. He called me on the phone to ask me to come to his office to discuss it.

In his office, I sat in front of his desk, waiting for him to finish writing an email. I tapped the arms of the chair and looked at the picture on the bookshelf behind his desk, one in which he and his wife were at a party. I opened my mouth to ask him how long they had been married, to establish rapport, but he started speaking.

“So, why did you do it this way?” His tone felt accusatory to me. He stared at the screen.

“I don’t know,” I said reflexively, feeling eight years old again. I shook the feeling off and explained my logic.

“Okay…” He rattled off a list of directives. With each one, he clicked and snapped at the keyboard, rearranging the model.

“Hold on, can you explain that again?” I scooted to the edge of the chair and leaned over his desk so I could see the screen.

He tossed up his hands, then crashed them down on the desk. “Look, I have a call in five minutes. I don’t have time to explain this, so just try to finish it.”

My mouth open, I stared at him. I expected him to pick up on the nonverbal cue my face was making and apologize. I sat there for a moment longer, wondering how I could finish something I didn’t fully understand. Well, I had an MBA from Georgetown University. I would figure it out.

I spent six hours that Sunday working on it. The office was silent, save the breathing of the HVAC system pumping heat because my body had set off the motion detectors. When I sent it to my boss, he replied, “Thanks for doing this. It’s still not quite right, but I won’t have time to explain it to you before the meeting.”

So, at the staff meeting, I expected him to elaborate. But when the CEO asked for clarification, my boss said, “Vonetta can explain it.”

I blinked, then began speaking because 14 sets of eyes around the table were looking at me, waiting for the answer. My speech turned into stuttering. My boss sighed, rolled his eyes, and then explained the issue.

I felt humiliated. All of my life, I’d excelled at academics. In my past communications jobs and in my investment management internship, my bosses had glowed about my initiative and problem-solving skills. I had never been belittled.

I told my mom about it, and she joked, “When things like that happen, I always tell myself, ‘My ancestors went through worse.’” It wasn’t particularly comforting to be reminded of my mission, nipping at the very root of class- and racism, but it was inspiration to keep moving forward. 

I shrugged the incident off, hoping it was isolated. But countless infractions occurred, each chipping away at my belief in myself.

When I asked questions about financial statements, the partners usually didn’t have an answer for me, so I stopped asking them and figured things out for myself. In my performance review, I was told that I needed to ask more questions because “you learn by asking questions,” they said.

When I repeatedly asked another partner about how he wanted some analysis presented in Excel, he said, “However you want to do it.” When I turned it in, he said, “This was not what I was looking for.”

When I wrote in an investment memo with undisputable objective facts about prices, the partner deleted it, saying that while my point was well researched, it wasn’t the direction he wanted to go in. The investment committee declined the investment because the memo did not address prices. The partner did not ask me to tell them what I had written, refusing to acknowledge that I had done something right. I did not volunteer the information, knowing it would make him look bad and me, insubordinate.

As a Black woman, insubordination goes deeper than a tick on a performance review; it invites others to see you as the Angry Black Woman and can open the door for worse, and even more irrational, accusations.

I tried to remind myself of my mom’s mantra: My ancestors went through worse. Then I shook myself, told myself not to show my anger outwardly and to continue working until I hit the next brick wall.

My white male colleagues seemed to be having a different experience from me. The guys talked casually with the partners about upcoming golf trips and where they liked to hit the links. They seemed to me to be promoted with ease. Their work was less often questioned in front of the whole team, and if someone dared to try, someone always came to their defense.

I grappled with understanding why I hadn't been given the same treatment. The situation wasn't clearcut or white-washed as it might have seemed—the leadership included minority and female representation. But here's what I knew: I could not succeed in an environment in which I was not given the chance to do even marginally well.

I searched for a new job for a year, using doctor’s appointments as my excuse for stepping out of the office. After a few months, I had so many doctor’s appointments that the partners got suspicious. One of them asked if my health was okay. I wanted to tell him, no, it was not okay. My brain felt like mushy peas in mashed potatoes. My body felt like it was constantly walking through a windstorm with a torrential downpour on my face. I felt like couldn't do anything right at work, and I passed those frustrations onto my husband for taking out the garbage wrong.

Ultimately, none of my “doctor’s appointments” worked out. I was crushed by my undesirability. Not only did I not belong in the firm I had been hired into, no one in the industry wanted me.

During my mid-year review, the CEO again told me that I had not sufficiently engaged the partners, that I still needed to ask more questions, and that I needed to be more a part of the team.

“We might have to reassess your performance before the year-end review if this behavior continues,” he said.

Back in my office, I asked myself, “Who is in charge of the state of my dignity? Who determines my self-worth?”

Over several months, I talked the situation over with my husband. I decided to leave the company on my own terms, without another job. I knew it was risky. I knew it was dangerous if I ever planned on getting a job in the same industry again. But, I decided, more important than my income or tiny semblance of reputation I’d tried to build in the industry was my self-worth.

On my last day, one of the female partners told me, “I hope your experience wasn’t too bad here. It’s all relative, right?”

I smiled politely and left her office.

I can’t help but feel that I insulted my ancestors by walking out that door. The air-conditioned offices of Wall Street will always be more comfortable than the sun-scorched shackles of tobacco fields, so, really, what did I have to complain about?

I hate that I’m no longer in the room, no longer attempting to set the temperature, no longer carrying the rope up the mountain so others—women, minorities—can climb up safely after me.

After speaking with several minorities who also got fed up and left the industry, I know I am not the only one to whom this has happened. I am not the only one who feels guilty about leaving. But I believe our tenures, however brief or continuous, matters. Our presence chips away at the false stereotypes and systems of inequality by showing up every day armed with passion, potential and a commitment to excellence.

When minority and female partners of investment firms are no longer aberrations, I will feel that my experience was well worth the discomfort. Until then, I will use my voice to encourage those who are still in the ring to fight the good fight, to represent well to the very end.


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(Photo via Pexels)

Topics:

#Personal Essay #Women In Finance
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This essay resonated with me to the fullest. Well done Vonetta!

Thank you so much!

Allison Craney
Allison Craney

Vonetta, thank you so much for this beautifully written piece.

Angel Ciangi
Angel Ciangi

This was so well said. Totally resonated with me. Thank you!

As an African American woman, I have experienced countless episodes of being thrown under the bus and scapegoated in multiple environments. It's like you're a threat and an easy target at the same time. For this reason, this article definitely resonates with me. Getting better, smarter and more powerful yet!

Nice article - thanks for the post. A must read for men in finance.

What a tough, unfair experiernce, to say the least. Thank you for sharing. Every voice matters!

Though I do not work in Finance, your story resonated with me. I am sure that women of color in most, if not all, industries can relate. Thank you for sharing your experience!

Thanks for sharing. There are so many who can learn from your experiences. I've never worked in finance, but I have worked in engineering and construction, and the examples you describe could be lifted from the same page. I was often given tough assignments with no direction, and I often thought this was so that I would fail after which they could dismiss me. Sometimes others who did not look like me had been given the assignment before me and had not been successful. I always rose to the challenge, but also wondered why this type of behavior was even necessary.

Thank you so much for this!!

Thank you so much for contributing this article. I had a similar experience working in the media industry for a very corporate company. While I was there I received company awards and merits of achievement yet I was still ultimately accused of not fitting into the cultural caste of my superiors. I was, at times, told I was too quiet and aloof and then when I attempted to self correct and speak up for myself I was told I was too aggressive. This attitude left me no middle ground to grow into the kind of leader that I wanted to become so I choose to leave. I didn't have another job lined up but I knew that things were not going to get better and that I had the power to create opportunities for myself. I left on good terms despite feeling that I was mistreated.

I didn't feel guilty like I let down my ancestors I felt liberated and proud of showing up for myself and teaching people that I stand firm in my self worth. I have a stronger sense of self and I know that my ancestors were cheering me on. I stayed long enough to teach others through my own experience that there is power in standing up for yourself and to be strategic about your approach to navigating a corporate environment. You have to fully understand the cultural dynamics and be ready for anyone who may feel that they can use their sense of power, influence or sheer privilege to undermine you no matter what your experience or pedigree portend if you want to thrive as a black woman in a highly competitive and corporate media environment. It can be very cut throat so literally anyone can throw you under the bus to advance themselves or protect themselves (from a potential threat). I realized that kind of environment just was not for me - it made me feel limited and stifled and I wanted more for myself.

Thank you for sharing and being transparent. Excellent article. I am not a racial minority, but I am a woman. I hope you have found the next best thing in your career and someone has found your talents and skills. All I can say is, many men on Wall Street are neurotic!

Dr. Vivi W. Hua, Psy.D.
Dr. Vivi W. Hua, Psy.D.

This is a great article, Vonetta! The title of the article brought me back to this website, and I was touched by your sharing of personal experience as a Black woman in finance. Based on my own experience and my clinical work with many minority women, we always seem to have this desire to be recognized by the "mainstream culture," and in this process we "learn" to modify our approach in order to fit into the frame of what is considered "right," "good," and "excellent." It is in this very process, we start to overlook and oftentimes dismiss our authentic voices--the voices that truly reflect who we are fundamentally as an individual, our talents and strengths, as well as how much we can contribute to our professions. The process of you coming to the realization that your self-worth is more valuable than the income and exterior fame took much self-reflection; your decision to leave the job without the security of the next job lined up took a great deal of courage. And it was indeed taking action from a self-empowering stance.

Excellent article. What an infuriating position to be in, I can understand how it must have been hard to leave your job, for multiple reasons. I have so much respect for you staying true to your authentic self.

Thanks for sharing, I am in the same situation right now. I'm not a racial minority, but I am the only woman in the same position as my more experienced coworkers, from a different university, and the only one in a different work shift.

Besides the loneliness, I must deal with the same workload as all of them (sometimes together).
Your piece shows me I really am not alone, so again, thank you.

It has been stated already - repeatedly - but THANK YOU for this. I will replace Finance with HR and continue to carry the load in a global company where I am on the only black woman "on the wall" and singularly questioned, omitted from meetings, important conversations, etc. WE carry the torch for our ancestors. Again, thank you!

~HOTEP

Thank you for putting in words what happened to me as well. Great writing.

Camille Serelus
Camille Serelus

I love this. I'm currently in a part-time MBA program and work for the University. Even in my entry-level job, I receive zero guidance or direction. It's my first job out of college so I was expecting something more but I have my eye on a bigger prize and see this as a learning lesson. I'm grateful to you for sharing your experience with us, Vonetta. It's a fear of mine to have to go through these things over and over again with each new job but I know our presence and determination pave the way for women just like us.

This was beautifully written, and so brave of you to share.

It's stories like these that continue to aspire and reassure me that "escaping the micro-aggressive hell-hole cloaked as the workplace" was the right decision on me. I haven't looked back, and with patience and consistency, more doors are opening that would never have if I chose to stay and endure the psychological and emotional pain.

I have experienced everything you mentioned and even more, and I don't even work in corporate! I've worked mostly in education and non-profit, but it's not really about the environment. It's the systemic mindset that "white is right" needs a paradigm shift.

Great article. Thank you so much for writing this

Great article. Thank you for sharing your story. I know it took courage.

Damned if you did, damned if you didn't. I don't know how you made it that far without an ulcer or a stroke. My father was an eighth-grade dropout who got his education in the Navy. He had a philosophy that I use today: if no one will make room for me at the table, I will build my own damned table. :)

Tiff Heezy
Tiff Heezy

Hey there, from a fellow English major considering an MBA. Thank you for being so candid. I too have felt that way in an office and ultimately decided to leave, wilted from a less than successful job hunt. My question is if you will use your Wall Street employer for future job recommendations. I've stepped out of the work world temporarily (overseas travel) but have often wondered that for when I return.


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