I have had countless experiences as a working professional where people have mistaken me for a college student. I have even had experiences where people are in complete disbelief when I tell them I am 33 years old. (As if anyone could actually pinpoint what a 33-year-old woman is supposed to look like.)
Looking young can have many disadvantages, especially when it comes to advancing into leadership roles. These disadvantages can be even more compounded for women of color. On the recent Forbes list of America’s 100 Most Innovative Leaders, only one of them was a woman and none of them were black. The biggest companies in the U.S. are predominantly led by white men. As of 2018, only 25 CEOs in Fortune 500 companies were women — that’s just 5%.
Given these statistics, it’s not hard to believe that most people experience cognitive dissonance when I share my story as a young woman of color in the workplace. For me, finishing a doctoral degree at 29 and being the director of a college campus at 33 is incongruent with what America has defined as a “leader.”
Telling a woman of color that she looks young to be in her position isn’t a compliment, it’s actually a microaggression. The word “young” is often associated with being inexperienced, incompetent and inadequate, which is why many young women feel like they are constantly under a microscope and have to work twice as hard.
By telling a woman of color that she looks too young, you’re also conveying that she is somehow undeserving of her current stature or position in life.
By pointing out her looks, you are also choosing to ignore other aspects of her character that matter in advancing to leadership roles — skills, experience, intellect and merit.
Women of color are constantly told that they are either too much or not enough of something — we can’t keep making them pay the penalty for our own racist and sexist ideologies.
One thing that we all need to acknowledge is that the demographics of our workforce are changing. Millennials are on track to be the most educated generation to date, according to the Pew Research Center, so it comes as no surprise that many of us entered the workforce with more advanced skill sets than previous generations. In particular, advancement means something different for women of color; women of color recognize that educational attainment is integral to combating both gender and racial discrimination.
Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a woman of color has a Ph.D., or that she is the youngest person in a leadership role. Age should no longer be a prerequisite for success.
When you see a woman of color who is very accomplished in her career, just say, “Good for you, keep going. I’m rooting for you.”