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The Elephant in the Office: Challenges faced by women of colour in the workforce

Kah Yann Cheah is a 2nd Year medical student from Malaysia, studying at the University of Edinburgh. She entered and won the 2022 the Katherine Branson Essay Prize, offered by the Medical Women’s Federation. We share her winning essay with you below, as a wonderful example of how engaged students are in the issues the BeSST community teaches. We asked Kah Yann what prompted her to write the essay.

The essay prompt (Women are advancing in the workforce, yet unique challenges are faced by various communities. What are the challenges faced by women of colour and how can we tackle these?) piqued my interest as the subject of racism and sexual inequalities is something I am quite passionate about. It was refreshing to explore these issues in my essay, 'The Elephant in the Office' about women of colour in medical practice, which paid close attention to microaggressions, racism, and sexism in the workplace. Coming from a traditional "conservative" Asian background myself, I have been unlearning my internalised misogyny and classism, working instead to promote the uplifting of us women as a community. I hope to empower like-minded students to seek out opportunities to advocate for inclusion and diversity.

“The Elephant in the Office: Challenges faced by WOC in the workforce and how to tackle them”, by Kah Yann Cheah

The term “girlboss” surfaced in the early 2010s, beginning as a slogan to empower women to achieve their career goals. The meaning later shifted to signify the pursuit of capitalistic gain and has come to emblematise the empty promises of an “equal world”.(1) Captured in “girlboss” is the illusion of reclaiming power from a previously male-dominated workforce; this is especially harmful to women of colour (WOC). This rhetoric of white feminism has not served our collective liberation as it has failed to consider the intersectional contexts and politics of gender, race, class and sexuality.(2)(3) WOC’s intersecting identities mean that they are impacted by a multitude of social justice and human rights issues, and it is to no surprise that this translates to the workplace.(4)

As a WOC studying medicine at one of the least diverse universities in the UK, (5) I have grown increasingly exasperated at peers being condescending due to entrenched social bias and dealing with microaggressions almost daily. When such instances occur, my self-doubt starts to surface and I wonder if there was anything I could have done differently – anything to feel more accepted. I can only imagine what it might be like in the workforce.

One of the major challenges is entry into the workforce. Research shows that WOC are associated with harmful stereotypes that cast them as “unstable”, “overly assertive” and “emotional”.(6) These terms are specific to WOC and are not used to describe either white women or men of colour. They perpetuate an implicit bias for selection and since most selection systems are based on likeability, WOC are unfairly disadvantaged by a system built against them. A solution is to provide training to the selection committee, heightening awareness of the current disparity and reducing implicit bias they might portray.(7) This has already been implemented in some institutions with favourable results.(8)

Another salient barrier faced by WOC is workplace ostracism.(9) Microaggressions, isolation and incivility are examples of subtle workplace discrimination faced by WOC. Cultural norms play a factor in this challenge. From an early age, girls are taught to “play nice” and this is expressed later in the workforce where women are expected to maintain the role of the non-confrontational caregiver.(10) When WOC speak out, they are seen in a bad light. The experiences vary across minorities of WOC. For example, the “angry Black woman” trope could prevent Black women from expressing their thoughts to avoid conforming to this stereotype and Asian women who are stereotypically submissive are seen as overaggressive when confronting mistreatment.(11) Bystander training, which has proven to aid problematic behaviours like sexual harassment, could be used for the mediation of microaggressions. This would allow for the issue to be confronted without the target being labelled as “overreacting”.(12)

WOC’s progression in the workplace is hindered by the taking on of service roles. As one study found, African American women at predominantly white institutions spend more time in service roles than their white counterparts.(13) In addition, there is cultural taxation where WOC are seen as the point of contact for all things related to their minority group. These all contribute to less time dedicated to their own work.(11) It seems like the solution to this is clear, and it is to ask WOC to “Just say no” to these extra tasks. However, this does not address the matter as a pervasive social phenomenon across society and additionally exposes WOC to criticism for turning down opportunities to educate and reform. WOC especially are criticised more than their counterparts for saying no to work outside their job description, with stereotypes such as uncooperative and lazy. Instead, the technique should be switched to “Just don’t ask” to avoid detracting WOC from career progression.(11) Although the voice of WOC is crucial to make institutional changes, we should not overburden them with the task of representing all minorities. More specifically, serving as unpaid labour to educate White people who have no intention of creating social change through their own behavioural rehabilitation.

These issues that plague WOC in the workplace should be eradicated by employing interventions that are specific to tackling their unique experiences. It is important to understand that wider systemic inequalities are endemic within the current exploitation-capitalism model, and it is our responsibility as members of society to first understand these power dynamics and then work together to eliminate them. For a world that does not seek to dismantle the systems of oppression that we live under, will only further cement the social inequalities that might be undermined in order to challenge racism and discrimination in the workplace. The reversal of these inequalities is a lengthy battle and I longingly await the day when I will not have to fight to have my voice heard.


1. Abad-Santos, Alex (7 June 2021). "Girlboss ended not with a bang, but a meme". [Online] [Cited: February 26, 2022.]

2. Crenshaw, Kimberle (July 1991). "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color". Stanford Law Review. 43 (6): 1241–1299. CiteSeerX doi:10.2307/1229039. JSTOR 1229039.

3. Zakaria, Rafia. Against White Feminism. s.l. : Hamish Hamilton, 2021.

4. Women's March Foundation. [Online] [Cited: February 26, 2022.]

5. Rana, Yas. The Tab . [Online] [Cited: March 1, 2022.]

6. Ashley, W. (2014). The angry Black woman: The impact of pejorative stereotypes on psychotherapy with Black women. Social Work in Public Health, 29, 27–34.

7. Carnes, M., Devine, P. G., Isaac, C., Manwell, L. B., Ford, C. E., Byars-Winston, A., . . . Sheridan, J. T. (2012). Promoting institutional change through bias literacy. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 5, 63–77.

8. Smith, J. L., Handley, I. M., Zale, A. V., Rushing, S., & Potvin, M. A. (2015). Now hiring! Empirically testing a three-step intervention to increase faculty gender diversity in STEM. Bioscience, 65, 1084–1087.

9. Turner, C. S. V., González, J. C., and Wood, J. L. (2008). Faculty of color in academe: what 20 years of literature tells us. J. Diver. Higher Educ. 1, 139–168. DOI: 10.1037/a0012837.

10. Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963.

11. Liu, S.-N. C., Brown, S. E. V., & Sabat, I. E. (2019). Patching the “leaky pipeline”: Interventions for women of color faculty in STEM academia. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 7(1), 32-39. ABSTRACT. [Online]

12. Michelle C. Haynes-Baratz, Tugba Metinyurt, Yun Ling Li, Joseph Gonzales, Meg A. Bond, (2021), Bystander training for faculty: A promising approach to tackling microaggressions in the academy, Vol. 63. 0732-118X. 13. Harley, D.A. (2008), “Maids of academe: African American women faculty at predominately white institutions”, Journal of African American Studies, Vol. 12 No. 1, pp. 19-36

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