A recent study of women of color who work in the tech industry offers insight into why many don’t want to return to the office. Their reasons range from acts of overt racism and sexism, as well as more subtle dynamics, including: feeling the need to self-monitor their behavior (i.e. not presenting as “too Latina” or “too Black); self-editing so as not to present as too “intimidating”; being mistaken for admin or custodial staff; feeling the need to alter 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 require more explanation is why people of color — particularly 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 on-site work, as opposed to 21% of white peers. Another found that Black, Asian-American, and Latinx knowledge workers all preferred hybrid or fully remote work at higher rates than whites do.
Why? It provides a respite. Working with white people can often be draining, in ways that are detailed in our new study of women of color in tech. As one multiracial woman in tech shared with us, “The day that I am thinking about still brings up feelings of extreme isolation and exhaustion. By the end, I was done. I was hurt, exhausted, and furious. As I walked around, I realized that there was no one there I could go to. I went back to my desk, picked up my purse, and went home and cried. I was so, so alone with my pain that day. I called in sick the next day and took a long weekend.”
Open racism and sexism are astonishingly omnipresent in today’s workplaces: 81% of women of color in our study of tech said they experienced at least some racism while 90% said the same for sexism. One multiracial woman reported that she heard racist comments because her colleagues assumed she was white. She told us that “It can cause folks to quite literally take a step back,” when she tells them she is a person of color.
More subtle dynamics are also in play. Research shows that authoritative women need to constantly monitor and edit their own behavior to get promoted – and that study doesn’t even take into account how race exacerbates this effect. Said a Latina, “If you present yourself as too Latina or too Black in the workplace, that could be a turnoff for your white colleagues, so you kind of have to monitor that.”
Part of the reason is the tightrope people of color have to walk. Being seen as disengaged is not a good career move, but behavior that would be seen as a career-enhancing passion for the business in a white man may not be well received when it comes from people of color. “I have never felt like it has been okay for me to show emotion in any space,” said an African-American woman. “And it doesn’t matter what the emotion is — to be angry, to be sad, to be disappointed. Everything has to be calculated in terms of how I respond.”
Other women reported self-editing so as not to be seen as “intimidating.” Research shows that white people tend to see Black people as angry (even when they’re not) and that white people penalize dominant behavior in 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 glances go across the room, like, ‘Oh, here she goes again.’” No wonder people want to work from home, so they can take a walk around the block.
Another dynamic concerns status: More than two thirds of the women of color in our survey reported being mistaken for admins or custodial staff. An indigenous woman described the difficulties she encountered in meetings outside her team: “Twice in the last week someone has called me the assistant. It’s like okay, let me introduce myself, [I’m] the associate product manager. I am the number two for making decisions for all of our mobile products.” This problem is easily solvable in remote meetings, where software like Zoom allows users to add their title next to their name.
And then there’s the issue of what’s considered “professional” attire: 79% of women of color in our survey reported having to alter their appearance or demeanor to fit in at work. “If everyone else is wearing jeans and tennis shoes to work, I always make sure I always wear slacks and heels so that people could visually see that I took my professionalism seriously,” said an African-American woman.
Finally, since people of color literally have to put in more time at work, they may be more attracted to remote work to eliminate commuting time. Astonishingly, 95% of women of color in our survey of the tech industry say they needed to prove themselves over and over to get the same recognition that’s conferred automatically on others. We saw similar results in a previous study of women of color in the engineering industry. One Black woman told us: “You’re monitoring your face, you’re monitoring your tone, your response. Writing emails five and six times to make sure, sending them to people you trust. ‘Hey, does this have any tone in it that you can read?’ It’s a lot of work to be done to present a professional face.” Another described how the only other Black supervisor at her company sent out emails with grammatical errors. “And so finally I was like, ‘Don’t send that out – let me review it first,” she said, in order to avoid having them both look bad. This pattern of bias is known as “comparison threat.”
In short, the office enhances some folks’ workplace experience while it corrodes others’. To quote W. E. B. Du Bois’: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
White people hopefully have 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 on-site work is a good first step. Our research has focused on women of color, but a 2020 study found that Black men were the least likely group to want to return on-site full-time. So what you’ve just read is only half the depressing story of how race plays out in today’s workplace.
Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.