'The 4 Lessons I've Learned at Work As a Woman of Color'

I started my career on a nine-month paid fellowship at NBCUniversal. From there, I worked my way up through production and editorial booking, before eventually becoming an on-air reporter. It's an unlikely journey for a former undocumented Latina who grew up in rural America without any connections in media.

From an early age I found safety and success in blending in. I felt that the more I dropped my Spanish accent, kept quiet about my background, and kept my head down, the more respect and trust I built with people around me. Like many other women of color, I learned it was on me to find a way to blend in—whether that be in the town I grew up in, the environments I learned in, or in the workplace.

One of the ways we women of color achieve this is by minimizing discomfort felt by others. We take it on ourselves to make people feel at ease around us. If there's silence after a conversation about money or advocating for more at work, we tend to fill it instead of embracing the leverage that comes from basking in the silence.

Daniela Pierre-Bravo
Daniela Pierre-Bravo, now an MSNBC reporter for Morning Joe. Pierre-Bravo has recently written a book about how to overcome feeling like an "other" at work. Anthony Scutro

If we are on the receiving end of a microaggression, we might laugh it off or play along so we don't make others feel uncomfortable. We worry that if we push back, people will use our response to confirm stereotypes about us—the hysterical Latina, the angry Black woman.

These are just some examples of challenges women of color can face in the workplace. Here are my four tips on how women who have felt "othered" can take back their power at work.

Understand why you feel like an "other"

Growing up, I didn't know how to embrace my duality as a Latina who lived in America but was constantly being told she didn't belong here. From an early age, I felt that I was not only different, but that this difference was a liability. Being undocumented not only ingrained in me that I did not belong, it also internalized a great deal of shame.

As a result, I shut off and minimized parts of myself that meant later in my career I would tread lightly and wait for permission before making decisions.

The first step is to understand where the story of ourselves comes from. This can help us see that people's opinions of us have nothing to do with us, but everything to do with their limited understanding. It was never us that needed to change.

I once had an interview where the interviewer feared I may be "unlikeable" to others at the company, due to my directness and passion. The person who made this comment was white, and the person who advocated for me that day came from an immigrant family. By the time I heard this, I was already at a different job and in a position of influence, but it was a good reminder that cognitive dissonance is someone else's issue, and not something for me to fix or a reason for me to change who I am.

Push back in real time

I've spoken to many women of color in my mentor community who have been on the receiving end of inappropriate comments at work and wish they had responded differently in real time.

Instead of taking on that discomfort, I recommend they send it back to the person who made the comment by asking for clarification: "What did you mean by that?" Or repeat what they said, so they can sit with the discomfort of the comment. It's not on you to take it on.

The women who have tried this tell me that the responses typically fall into two categories. They either receive a real time apology, or the recipient doubles down on their comment. In the latter situation, you can at least document and report the incident to HR.

Don't be the "yes" girl

For a while in my career, I tried my best to be liked and volunteered for everything to make others happy. I would run myself dry by doing the most and going to any and all events that I was invited to because I felt like I would miss out on opportunities if I didn't. It feels counterintuitive to say "no," especially if you come from generational struggle.

I was always the "yes" girl. I was afraid success would go away if I was anything but that. But this mentality meant I found it harder to use my voice. I second-guessed myself and I didn't speak up in meetings as I was afraid my ideas weren't good or smart enough.

The pandemic helped many of us discern the experiences and tasks that were sucking away our energy and time. I now know that saying "no" is a powerful tool as you move up in your career.

Learning this has made me less reactionary and helped me be more strategic about how I build my career. I advise others to also be strategic: ask for projects and tasks that will help you progress, practice delegating more effectively, and be conscious about volunteering to take on work that doesn't benefit you and isn't part of your job description.

Be direct

Once I moved up in my career and had a seat at the table—helping guide editorial planning and book TV guests—I needed to learn to use my voice more effectively. It took me some time to advocate for ideas with ease and confidence. I was the only woman, immigrant, and young person on the editorial team at the time, but I learned a valuable tool to communicate effectively from the men I worked with: be direct.

Both in meetings and in emails, they were straightforward and clear. I started following their lead and avoiding fluff phrases like "I'm sorry but," "I was thinking maybe...possibly," "no worries if not!" Instead, I used more assertive language, such as: "my recommendation is...", "when can I expect X,Y, Z?"

If you find more direct ways to say what you mean, you are more likely to be given the respect you deserve.

Daniela Pierre-Bravo is a best-selling author, speaker and MSNBC reporter for Morning Joe. Her book, The Other: How to Own Your Power at Work as a Woman of Color, is out now.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.