As the women’s NCAA basketball tournament concluded last week with the championship game, Louisiana State University’s star player Angel Reese made headlines not only for her MVP win, but for challenging First Lady Jill Biden’s idea to also invite the losing team to the White House’s celebration. Reese also faced criticism from media and pundits who labeled her in-game gestures at University of Iowa guard Caitlin Clark as “classless” and other harsh, critical judgements.
Her response was one that many Black women in the workplace could identify with, and reflects the double standards and biases they face within organizations:
“All year, I was critiqued for who I was. I don’t fit the narrative,” Reese said. “I don’t fit the box that y’all want me to be in. I’m too hood. I’m too ghetto. Y’all told me that all year. But when other people do it, and y’all don’t say nothing.”
Stepping outside the context of the court, organizations and leaders can learn a few things from this story:
Ending the ‘Pet to Threat’ Cycle
Excellence is demanded of Black women in the workplace, yet when they step into the fullness of that same greatness in a way that offends power structures, they are reprimanded. The term ‘Pet to Threat,’ coined by the University at Alabama’s Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dr. Kecia M. Thomas, and popularized in a 2020 article on Medium from attorney and writer Erika Stallings, comes to mind here. It teaches us that when Black women show signs early on in their careers of excelling and attempt to develop professionally, they’re often sidelined on important projects and relegated to support roles, despite their high performance. It implies that Black women are expected to maintain a high level of excellence in their work, yet not so much that it should challenge their White counterparts or other power dynamics.
Coming up against these barriers can lead to harmful experiences for Black women, who often end up leaving the organization feeling misused, invisible, dejected, and questioning their worth or value. To combat this experience, it’s crucial that organizations give Black women ample and authentic opportunities to excel and back them up with the trust and resources to match. Providing Black women with professional development opportunities will also give them the network, resources, and affirmation needed to remain in spaces that do not fully support their growth.
Removing the Expectation of Women to be Nice
Reese’s story also demonstrates what happens when women, and especially Black women, dare to be anything other than docile or submissive. For Black women, expressing sides of themselves that are competitive or aggressive can mean being labeled as ‘the Angry Black Woman’ and cause them to be perceived as a threat. Simultaneously, this same grit is championed in their men counterparts. Organizations should frequently be assessing how they are embracing the totality of a Black woman’s experience there, and be receptive to feedback on how they can remain challenged and supported in their professional growth.
Playing ‘Both Sides’ is Never the Answer to Equity
During a speech at the Colorado State Capitol, First Lady Jill Biden suggested that both LSU and the losing Iowa Hawkeyes both be invited to the White House for the championship celebration. Many organizations further create inequity in their attempts to be ‘fair’ and impartial to ‘both sides.’ This train of logic places Black women on the receiving end of harm, where adjustments made in their pay, resources, responsibilities, and more are seen as being unfair to their White counterparts. By breaking down scarcity mindsets and recognizing the inherent and systemic challenges Black women face as professionals, and the unique positionality they hold in the working world as being both women and Black.
While organizations grapple with promises made to advance equity and inclusion that often fall short, examining where they are harming or supporting the Angel Reese on their team is a first step shifting the culture to one where Black women can thrive.