This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2021 The New York Times Company
Employers are making plans for employees to return to the office after more than a year of virtual work, but many women of color aren’t eager to rush back.
“I’m nervous about going back,” said Courtney McCluney, who started a new job as an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s ILR School last June, and hasn’t yet met many of her colleagues in person. For McCluney, a Black woman who has faced countless microaggressions throughout her professional career, the virtual environment provided a respite.
“This was the first year that I haven’t had my hair commented on and touched without permission in my professional life,” she said. “I actually like not having to go into the office and be constantly reminded that I’m the only Black woman there.”
Research backs this sentiment. In a survey by Slack think tank Future Forum a whopping 97% of Black respondents in the U.S. said they preferred a fully remote or hybrid workplace. Only 3% of Black workers surveyed said they wanted to return fully in person, compared with 21% of white workers. In another study from the same group, Black workers reported a 50% increase in their sense of workplace belonging and a 64% increase in their ability to manage stress once they began working from home. The study concluded that flexible work was critical to a feeling of greater inclusion for Black workers.
To be sure, remote work brought many challenges for women of color. But a return to in-person work will also mean a return to microaggressions, pressure to conform to white standards of professionalism, and high rates of workplace stress and burnout.
As a whole, women of color tend to have a more negative experience in the workplace than white women, said Laura Morgan Roberts, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “They’ve historically worked in environments that have not been physically safe for them, much less psychologically or emotionally safe.” Many women of color feel disconnected or disengaged at work, overlooked for projects and not fully connected to co-workers and colleagues. There’s a feeling that white co-workers don’t really “understand, respect or appreciate our cultural context or our journey,” she said.