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Advice: I’m a woman of color often overlooked at work — until people realize I outrank them

Any ideas on how to handle colleagues’ sudden shifts toward politeness?

Need some help dealing with an awkward situation with co-workers, friends, or family? Send your questions to Miss Conduct.

I’m a woman of color with a baby face. In professional settings, I frequently get overlooked — until people discover my job title. Then, everyone’s behavior does a radical, 180 shift. I know this is part of what it means to be a woman of color in America, but it’s taking a toll. Often, I’m left scrambling to adjust to the sudden politeness, and it’s also causing internal turmoil — what am I worth without my job? Advice?

Anonymous / Cambridge


People who do this are caught out and ashamed. You saw their bum, not the other way around, so who’s embarrassed and scrambling? Not you, Anonymous. Slow your roll here, do deep breaths or count to 10. Let that awkward silence be your voice, telling them that yep, you saw that, and it was indeed a transgression. Then proceed with the business you were there to conduct. Graciously, from the power-up position you now hold, like a queen extending mercy. This time.

Don’t derail your intended agenda for the jabroni in the moment; you can decide afterward if you should do anything else. If said jabroni is in your company, you’ve uncovered a risk factor and skill deficit, so do whatever is appropriate with that information. It’s unwise to make assumptions in the workplace, and career suicide not to behave with universal courtesy. If a person mistakes a manager for a receptionist, that shouldn’t require a radical change in behavior, because everyone deserves respect no matter where their job falls on the company org chart.

Enough about them, let’s talk about you. Do you have friends who are women of color, or even a good online forum, to decompress with? You know you’re not the only one who experiences these things, but that’s different from feeling that you’re not alone. And to account for the psychological toll that nonsense like this takes on you, honor it as labor. Factor it in when making decisions like what projects and teams you want to be on, and how much money you will ask for, and how you prioritize your well-being.


And now to your last, heartbreaking question. Try this: Answer it seriously. You obviously, empirically, fit into categories besides your job title (woman, person of color, Bostonian . . . you get the idea). Write down 20. Sleep on it and then see which self-descriptions matter to you, which hold some key relationship or value. I find this a helpful way to remember we’re worth so much more than how some people see us.

Look at a baby. Unless you’re a Charles Dickens villain or an Ayn Rand heroine, you don’t see a larval worker whose only worth lies in its potential for labor. You wish that baby a future of love, beauty, good health, and good times, along with meaningful work. We want and deserve those things for ourselves, too.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.