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Black Introverts On Navigating The UK Workplace

·7-min read

Confident, charismatic, and perhaps even cocky, are just some of the traits commonly associated with effective leaders in the work place. Senior managers, CEOs and directors who effortlessly command attention and can exist comfortably among diverse groups of colleagues, during meetings and in social settings, often make a favourable impression on the people they encounter day-to-day. On the flip side, introverts — typically thought of as being much quieter and more reserved, aren’t nearly as revered in the professional realm as those with dominant extroverted characteristics.

According to psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who is credited for introducing the concepts for both personality types in 1921, introversion is an ‘attitude-type characterised by orientation in life through subjective psychic contents’, and extraversion is ‘an attitude-type characterised by concentration of interest on the external object’. Simply put, introverts are energised by solitude while extroverts draw energy from being around others.

Expanding on this notion during her Ted Talk, The Power of Introverts, Sarah Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, explains that introversion is “different from being shy. Shyness, is about fear of social judgement. Introversion is more about, how do you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation? So extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation, whereas introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low key environments.”

It’s no surprise then that highly extroverted people were found to have a 25% higher chance of being in a high-earning job than introverts; or that 65% of senior corporate executives considered introversion as a barrier to leadership in a 2006 Harvard Business Review survey. Such perceptions can lead to us subconsciously marginalising introverts which automatically puts them at a disadvantage in the workplace.

What happens then when introversion and race intersect? This is the question that formed the basis of Britain’s first Black Introvert Week (25-31 October), founded by creative brand consultant Richard Etienne. “For Black introverts it’s a community. It’s a place where we can trade tips and stories, and empower each other,” he tells Refinery29.

“And then you’ve got the other side which is more of an educational piece for organisations and educational institutions to think about how they can recognise and nurture the talents of these personalities that are misunderstood. Not just because they’re introverts but also with that intersectionality of race. And I speak to the observation about Black women in particular because in the UK there’s that unhelpful stereotype of the loud, angry Black woman. So when there is a quieter Black woman in the office it’s like ‘Is everything OK? Is something wrong?’ and those types of misconceptions, microagressions, whatever you want to call it, are not experienced by white introverts.”

For chartered secretary and influencer Mosope, 35, her already quiet nature at work was exacerbated after a malicious remark from a former manager threatened to derail her early in her career. “She told me straight up, point blank, ‘You’re a failure, you don’t have what it takes to be in this industry and you’re not going to make it’. That was a big blow for someone who’d just finished university during the [2008] recession,” she says. She eventually landed a role at what she describes as “a very inclusive and collaborative organisation,” where her introversion was quickly noticed by her colleagues. “The boss used to try and get me to speak up in meetings because I was just really quiet,” she says.

Now 13 years into her career with a roster of high profile organisations on her résumé, Mosope has welcomed praised from multiple hiring managers in her industry. “People have said to me ‘You’ve got a very strong CV, you’ve achieved so much for someone so young and you’re a star candidate’.” She does, however, wonder if she could have achieved more sooner if she’d been more vocal throughout the years. She explains: “A lot of people who I went to university with who are not Black, and we literally all did the same masters, ended up in the FSTE companies — which is a big deal in our world — as soon as we finished the course. However I just got [into one of those companies] last year. I think maybe because they were more outspoken that could have been a reason why.”

Diversity and inclusion consultant Hayley Bennett is all too familiar with the stunted career trajectories Black people are often forced to navigate and how this is made even more complex for Black introverts. “The number one thing that tends to come out in the work that I do is the unequal progression opportunities,” she says. “Across the board, Black people take longer to progress than white people and they’re not put forward to progress through sponsorship from their line manager or other senior people. They’re overlooked, so they might go for a promotion and be told ‘It’s just not the right time for you yet’ then someone else will be given the job. That’s the biggest frustration I hear because that tells someone that you don’t belong in that organisation and you’re going to have to move somewhere else to progress.

“It links back to how racism shapes our society because people are missing out on amazing opportunities to gain more income because of these barriers to progress, and I think it’s really linked to this topic around introverts because you’re at a double disadvantage then.”

And Hayley isn’t wrong. According to the most recent ONS ethnicity pay gap data, most of the minority ethnic groups analysed continue to earn less than white British employees, and a report from the London School of Economics published earlier this year found that Black women ‘are the least likely to be among the UK’s top earners compared to any other racial or gender group’.

For somebody like 29-year-old Rennie, who works in social care, there is a direct correlation between her introverted personalty and her annual salary. “[Being an introvert] affects me in every way. I tend to apply for jobs that I know I can get, so I stay with the lower paid jobs and I tend not to ask for a pay rise because I feel like ‘What if they say no?’ or ‘Just stay where you are, someone will notice you one day’,” she tells Refinery29. “I end up being stuck in the same old position with the same old pay. Someone in my field with my experience should earn a much higher salary than I do now.”

While it’s true that we live in a world that disproportionately rewards extroverts, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adapt the ways we work and socialise, undoubtedly sparking a shift in people’s willingness to learn more about what it means to live and work as an introvert.

“I feel like personality diversity is the vehicle that has allowed the discussions of introversion and extroversion into the conversation in the workplace, and that only came about because of lockdown,” says Richard. “Introverts were like: ‘Oh my god this is the best thing ever’ and extrovert were crying like: ‘What the hell is going on? I want to go back into the office’. And these things were rarely spoken about before because we were in an extrovert, open plan, brainstorming, dog-eat-dog kind of world.

“That’s why I’m optimistic for the future and now is the right time to bridge that intersectionality gap [between race and introversion] and see where that goes. I wouldn’t have been able to do that before the pandemic, not at all.”

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