Overcoming the challenges of intersectionality in the workplace

Ariel White-Tsimikalis
Ariel White-TsimkalisBryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP

Ariel White-Tsimikalis gives her top five tips to black female lawyers.

Female lawyer outside office

No journey through the legal profession is without bumps in the road. For those of us who are “different”, some challenges can feel a bit more acute. The effect of intersectionality is that it can compound that acuteness even further.

As a non-British, mixed race, first generation professional and mother it has often been difficult to pinpoint which aspect of my multi-faceted background underpins any one of the myriad of challenges I have faced during the course of my career.

Whilst I certainly do not have all the answers, here are some tips I would share based on what I have learned on my journey so far.

1. Honour the contract

Let honing your craft be your number one priority and the centre of your focus and attention at work. Do not get side-tracked by feelings that the bar is always higher for us, or that as black females we need to work three times harder than anyone else.

I hope one day no one will ever feel like that and the playing field will have truly been levelled in all respects. In the meantime, pour your energy into reaching that higher bar and welcome it, because it will stretch you into your higher potential and set you even more apart.

2. Be clear on your “why”

Navigating a legal career is no plain sailing, for anyone. However, you will weather storms more resiliently if you approach your journey with clarity on what exactly drives you and motivates you to your core.

Have that introspective conversation with yourself earlier in your career rather than later so that you approach your career with deep passion and unwavering conviction. It will be what keeps the midnight oil burning well past midnight. You will need all the rocket fuel you can get!

3. Stop trying to square a peg in a round hole

We are all indeed different – and “diversity” and “inclusion” are the true appreciation of those differences; but there is one thing that connects us all: a desire to belong. Don’t let any desire to belong or fit in make you feel like you need to be something you are not.

The moment you lose touch with your true self, your passion will begin to erode and the search for your “why” (or any clarity you once had regarding it) will become ever more elusive.

In a similar vein, do not let your determination to achieve at whatever cost mould you into thinking that you must bend into what others want you to be. Afford yourself the luxury of asking yourself what work you really want to do, who is your ideal client, what is your ideal team, which geographic region or practice area really excites you (progression prospects, team personalities, lack of experience, etc aside).

Don’t wait to be a partner to come up with your own business plan. Start with your business plan; then find the firm which fits your plan. Be wary of trying so hard to fit the firm that you never ask yourself what it is you really want to do or, even worse, decide what you want to do based on the firm.

4. Harness your diversity and make it work for you

Reframing the way I look at my own intersectionality was a true lightbulb moment for me. The paradigm shift from dialling down what was different about me and instead making it the cornerstone of my business plan and my personal brand was truly empowering. It saved me from making the decision to leave the profession and seek out my “why” elsewhere.

When I figured out a way to bring my 5pm to 9am (who I was outside of work) into my 9am to 5pm (making it part of who I was at work), I realised that my intersectionality was actually my superpower and not my handicap.

I attribute my ability to connect in some way with nearly anyone I speak with to my intersectional background – there will be some aspect of my Greek African-American heritage, growing up in a single-parent household after losing my father at the age of 10, going to school in predominantly white neighbourhoods as a bi-racial kid, being the only mother in a team and knowing what it was like to have to work part-time at The Gap to pay my way through law school which will enable me to find a “hook” in conversation with someone else.

They are not things I need to hide. These experiences give me richness, uniqueness and depth, all of which have enabled me to foster genuine relationships and build an incredible network which has been crucial to my progression in the profession.

5. Seize this moment

Never in my nearly 15 years of practice did I ever think that a day would come when being a senior black female lawyer would be proudly and openly heralded by a firm and that I could even talk about my experiences of being a black lawyer and others would want to listen.

Well, “hoop, there it is” – the day has come! There has never been a time like now for people like us. If you need help, ask for it. If you need more support, say so. If you’re feeling undermined, speak up. If you’re struggling with microaggressions, call them out. Do not suffer in silence any longer or internalise the struggle.

Seize this moment, because people have started to listen and I genuinely think they want to help.