Why mid-career pivoting is tougher for black women

I think there’s one thing we can agree on is that the pandemic has impacted working lives with the latest cited phenomenon tagged the “Great Resignation”. We’re seeing resignation rates for managers increasing with increased responsibilities and burnout likely playing a major role, as well as gender differences being a factor. Female managers were more likely to leave the workplace altogether to take care of their families during Covid-19, with poll findings revealing that one in three female managers were considering exiting the workforce altogether.

But is the great resignation really about the great discontent?

Discontent is often a precursor of change and for women it can be driven by multiple aspects, maybe she’s emerging out of personal transition such as divorce, bereavement, redundancy or has become an empty nester.

Differing scenarios but all with the same challenge, the woman is no longer enamored with her current career prompting the need for transformation.

But for successful black women over 40, it’s even harder to pivot or change careers as they face challenges from societal expectations and biases in addition to their internal mindset blocks such as — Will I be thought less competent? Will my transition affect how seriously I’m taken as a black woman? Will I be paid less? Will my career take a step backwards?

I work with these women, wanting to be successful is part of their DNA. They want to pivot into another industry, put a crack in the glass ceiling, start their own business or nonprofit. They want to do it all with impact and it’s my pleasure to support them.

It’s not easy though, they face hurdles and challenges just like everyone else, but theirs are amplified and intensified because they live at the intersection of age, race and gender.

One of their biggest hurdles is failure. Fear of failure looms large for black women.

  • It has been inbred and magnified from childhood. As a child I was told I had to be 10x better than my white counterparts because I was black. 20 something years later I repeated the same thing to my own children. Another 20 years later (40 — are you counting?). My clients tell me how much they struggle in the job market why? Because they’re black!
  • If they’re of immigrant parents, chances are that failure was NOT an option as their parents measured their success on how successful their children were and invested heavily in that achievement — bragging rights for the most number of lawyers and doctors in the family!
  • There’s the pressure from knowing that outsiders — the white establishment — will judge them for being different and inferior, secretly (or not so secretly) hoping for them to fail. The recent Women in the Workplace 2021 report cites “that while all women are more likely than men to face microaggressions that undermine them professionally — such as being interrupted and having their judgement questioned — women of color often experience these microaggressions at a higher rate.” Being the “Only” means they stand out, and because of that, they tend to be more heavily scrutinized with their successes and failures often put under a microscope, along with comments and behavior that reduce them to negative stereotypes.
  • The “strong black woman” trope looms large. Black women are often “the One” responsible for pulling everyone up, making sure everyone is right. We can’t fail, we have to stay up or everybody else falls.
  • In an effort to rise above the stereotypical caricatures of black women portrayed in the media or to prove ourselves to be worthy of the success we worked for, we can lose our personal identity as it becomes entwined with the title and position we’ve worked so hard to attain. If we lose that, we question “Who am I without the title?” Have I failed?

So What Can Black Women Do To Successfully Transition?

It seems that mid-career Black women are swimming against the proverbial tide, with all the challenges in our way, so what can we do to avoid falling prey to all the pressure? How do we overcome our fear of failure? How do we keep from just giving up? How can Black women successfully transition?

First, we need to acknowledge that all the added pressures we face as black women are real, they’re valid, and they’re legitimate. There’s enough research out there to underpin what we have experienced — it’s not a figment of our imagination.

Second, we have to remember that we’re not alone in our experiences. This is not a “Me,Myself and I” scenario, we have a support system in each other.

Third, we are worth fighting for. Despite all the challenges, it’s not an excuse to give up on our goals and

like it or not, we are trailblazers for those who follow in our path.

So we have to put aside our fears and focus on the work that needs to be done — taking care not to be our usual overachieving selves to avoid burnout! My advice would be;

  • Overcome your fear of failure by taking action — seek advice from someone who has experience of navigating similar mid-career paths. Reach out and talk to someone you trust. Send that email, book that breakthrough call. Gamble on yourself and commit to doing something that forces you to put yourself out there.
  • Recognize that you’re special — so own it! The world needs what you bring to the table, obviously none of the discriminatory structural barriers magically disappear overnight. Gambling on yourself and putting the work in is still a prerequisite and for now you’ve still got to work 10x as hard. But guess what? You won’t achieve success if you don’t do it.
  • Remember being mid-career doesn’t mean “end of career” you have so many advantages on your side — even if you can’t see them right now. People will always have something to say, so give them something to talk about!
  • Accept that you deserve to be in a career aligned to your values. Statistically, we’re living longer and conversely we’re also working longer! Haven’t you earned the right to be in a career you at least enjoy — if not love?
  • Lastly, If you don’t fight for what you want, your aspirations will always be aspirations, so shove those fears aside and take a bold leap — toward your mid-career goals.

If you’re a professional woman over 40 contemplating her next career chapter , or considering your options for a career change but need some support along the way contact me at info@janicesutherland.com or visit janicesutherland.com for more helpful resources.

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An award winning women’s leadership expert and CEO of This Woman Can — career development for professional women of color.

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Janice Sutherland

Janice Sutherland

An award winning women’s leadership expert and CEO of This Woman Can — career development for professional women of color.

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