There are times when I feel that everything I’ve learned growing up on how to be a good desi woman is a lie when it comes to my career. All the values that make for a demure, sweet, ‘homely’ desi girl do not serve me at work—especially when it comes to navigating professional systems, that, let’s face it, do not favour shy brown women.
With that in mind, here are a few do’s and don’ts for that bad desi gal that’s trying to get that money, especially if she works with men or is the only PoC in the house.
- Don’t fake an accent: Yours is perfectly good enough. If someone cannot understand you, they will ask, but do not be afraid to sound like you. Your accent is part of who you are, and there is nothing wrong with who you are.
- Don’t feel the need to explain yourself: You don’t need your story to make sense to everyone. You don’t need to give yourself an American name unless you want to. You don’t need to dress in beige unless you want to. If you are in the door, that means that you—the way you are—deserve to be there. Yes, follow the rules and norms of your office. Still, in the words of Wendy Sherman, “you should change and grow in the role, but you can also change the way people think of the office you fill.“
- Don’t put yourself down in meetings: You’ve been hired for a reason. That reason is your intelligence and your skillset. The most mediocre of white American men often don’t put themselves down. Women—desi women in particular—sometimes seem to think that everyone else is better than them and everyone else’s needs should be put first. That means that we forget to advocate for ourselves, not realizing that no one else will.
- Don’t accept poor behaviour or unreasonable expectations: No one did you a favour by hiring you. And you are not in your work environment out of altruism. This means setting reasonable expectations for yourself and communicating them. The best way to deal with bad behaviour is to draw attention to it as soon as it has happened.
- Don’t be afraid to negotiate your salary and benefits: Recognize what you want. Ask for it. If you don’t ask you will never receive it. If your superiors make you feel like garbage for asking, it’s a sure sign that you need to understand your value in the company. Perhaps it may be time to start thinking of a path towards what you want.
[Read Related: The 9to5 Misfits: 5 Ways to Get Unstuck in Your Career]
- Venture outside desi social circles at work: Make friends with your desi fam but know that there are people outside of your desi circles that want to get to know you. Your multiculturalism is an asset, so use it in that way.
- Practice your communication skills: Note – this is not the same as changing your accent. You can sound desi and be a spectacular communicator. Being concise and clear can be learnt with practice. Presenting information so that it is heard is a crucial skill, and understanding how to do so is a universal asset. Give presentations to your friends and colleagues, and ask them for honest feedback. Practice, practice, practice.
- Listen actively: A key part of being an effective communicator is learning to actively listen. This means being open to feedback without letting it shrivel you up; this means making people feel heard and included; this means reading nonverbal cues and being sensitive to the people around you. It does not mean agreeing with every nonsensical idea someone has.
- Handle the bullshit strategically: Every corporate office has bullshit. Bullshit comes in lots of flavours—racist, sexist, or just plain bullshit. Desi women won’t be the first to be heard, and the deck is not stacked in our favour. It is therefore critical to build a strategy around how to handle bullshit. First of all, handle it. Don’t let people walk all over you. But be strategic as well. Pick your battles. Always weigh your feelings at the moment against what you stand to gain at the end of the day and what it is that you want. If what you want is to call out that one ridiculously sexist comment at the moment, then do so. But also, do keep your eye on the prize. Don’t let office politics suck your energy away.
- Build a support system of mentors: The single most important thing you can do as a minority in a professional environment is to cultivate a group of mentors, inside and outside your organization. These people can be your peers but should also be individuals in various stages of their careers. It is invaluable to be able to draw upon your network and ask for advice. Chances are that you are not the first person to face the situation you are facing
Just because a road isn’t paved doesn’t mean we can’t make our own. Many of us are the first or second generation of working women in our families. And that’s more special than even we acknowledge to ourselves. So here’s to me, and you, and to all of us.