The "Problem" Woman of Colour in the Workplace

The “Problem” Woman of Colour in NonProfit Organizations

The “Problem” Woman of Colour in the Workplace

A couple of years ago, COCo discovered an earlier version of this tool, which depicts a common experience for women of colour (and especially Black women) working in the nonprofit sector. The diagram, which was originally developed in the United States, really struck us. It spoke to many of the stories employees in the nonprofit sector had told us about their own experiences; it also told the ‘story’ of much of the data we were reading from other research into racism in nonprofit organizations, not to mention the data we were collecting ourselves as part of our Diversité d’Abord research project (more on that in a minute). About a year after we started using it in trainings and discussion groups, it went viral on social media, with thousands of shares- another sign of its continuing relevance in 2018. Since then, we’ve been inundated with interest and inquiries about this tool and what it means.

How does this relate to COCo’s research on racism in nonprofits?

In the coming months, COCo will be releasing our own research into the question of racism in the nonprofit sector. In the meantime, there has been so much interest in this tool that we felt it was time to make it publicly available.

Our own research involved 2 online surveys and a series of focus groups. From what we already have seen in the data we collected, much of the survey findings support empirically what the tool depicts about the experience of women of colour in nonprofits. For example, within the last 3 years, ~30% of our racialized survey respondents said they had left a job due to an unwelcoming racial environment. At the same time, the data also shows that white respondents gave different reasons why their racialized colleagues had left their jobs, for example, thinking their colleagues had left because “they got a better job,” or “they want to spend more time with their family,”. Overall, white respondents underestimated how many people of colour were leaving their jobs because of discrimination by 15%. In contrast, the rate at which people of colour working in nonprofits reported witnessing their racialized peers leaving the sector because of unwelcoming racial environments was pretty much on par with the actual rate of people leaving.

How to Use the Tool in Your Nonprofit Organization

Throughout our workshops, we have asked:

  • What is the impact of this dynamic on the woman of colour in the organization?
  • What is the impact of this dynamic on the organization?
  • What is the impact of this dynamic on the community sector at large?

These questions can be a great starting point to start discussing this tool within your own organization. The tool can be used for workshops or discussions of different lengths, broadly to discuss race dynamics in an industry or area of work, or to explore specific policies and practices within your organization. If the environment you are working in is supportive enough, talking about the specifics of this pattern in your nonprofit, rather than in general, can make it a lot easier to identify real changes. We are experimenting with developing worksheets that can help people deepen their analysis, name their experiences, and use this tool more effectively in their workplaces. Most importantly, the tool invites women of colour to share their stories and to be believed BECAUSE it centres their experiences.

A few notes

We adapted this tool with permission from the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for NonViolence. One of the changes we made was to have the “woman of colour” be represented as wearing a hijab. While we understand that women who wear hijab can have many different racial backgrounds, we felt that this image allows us to make an explicit connection between racism and Islamophobia in Quebec- a connection that many women live every day.

We also know that while our own work centres in Quebec, and on nonprofits, this tool is also relevant outside of the nonprofit sector, and we’re totally happy to see people using this wherever it feels appropriate.

Read the section "Overview" for a description of the image of the tool


Below is an overview of the outlined trajectory in the “Problem” Woman of Colour in the Workplace tool. This narrative begins when a racialized woman is hired into an organization where the leadership and/or staff are predominantly White. She is excited to explore her new position and feels welcomed in her new workplace. This is also known as the honeymoon period. However, soon the hire is experienced as tokenism. Even if she was employed because of her skills and qualifications, the hiring process may be perceived as such by colleagues, community members, etc. Further, how her racial identity is used in the context of her position will impact this perception.

After a period of time in her new position, where weeks, months or even days, the reality of a white dominant space becomes apparent. The racialized woman experiences recurring microaggressions and structural barriers. For example:

  • heightened surveillance of her work and interpersonal relationships
  • repeated comments about her body and physical presentation
  • expectation of her addressing internal race dynamics

These dynamics are further complicated by the fact that if she were to explicitly name her experiences with race, both the organization as a whole and individuals within it will deny her experiences of racism. In fact, her attempt to address these dynamics can often become the arsenal for retaliation: the racialized woman becomes the source of the problem. She is viewed as no longer being “a good fit” or “not qualified”. She is then targeted and attacked by the organization by both formal and informal mechanisms (comments by co-workers, HR practices). In response to these experiences, the racialized woman leaves the organization, having been fired, quitting, finding a new job or going on sick leave.

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