Representation matters. I hear these words a lot these days and they are absolutely true. As I think about representation, I can’t help but reflect on my own professional journey and the role representation, or lack thereof, has played in my career trajectory.
Over the years, many colleagues have told me about experiencing imposter syndrome. That nagging feeling that they are “faking it” in their professional lives, and any day they will be found out for the imposter that they really are. I have had enough of these conversations to feel confident in writing that many people, regardless of race, gender, or background feel like imposters. I can honestly say that I have never suffered imposter syndrome because I know there is absolutely no way I would have achieved what I have achieved in life without having a certain level of skill, intelligence and drive. I know that because I grew up in a community where there were very few professionals that I could emulate or even people who encouraged me to go farther in my education and career. The fact that I had completed high school was more than enough, so anything beyond that was gravy and I treated it as such. If I wanted something, I tried for it. If I didn’t get it, well, I shrugged it off as not for me.
What I have felt, though, was lack of belonging. When I have entered certain spaces as a Puerto Rican woman, who grew up poor and left high school before finishing, there were certain assumptions around what I could expect to achieve. When I dropped out of high school, I vividly remember the social worker who asked me why she should help me find a job when I would most likely get pregnant and become a welfare recipient anyway. Those low expectations heavily weighed on me even as I did eventually finish high school, earn a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and, most recently, a doctorate. Low expectations were sometimes set by my family because they didn’t know what was possible. More often they were set by others outside of my family or community because of strong narratives about people like me (see previously mentioned social worker). In either case, I entered a lot of spaces alone and without a road map. As I moved up in my career, I saw fewer and fewer people who looked like me or who had similar experiences to mine. There was a lack of representation at all levels, and it caused me to hold back and go the safe route for fear of standing out or, worse, for fear of failing and causing some folks to continue to believe negative narratives about people like me. Stereotype threat, anyone?
On the surface, I did just fine despite all of that background noise and despite the lack of representation. I built a great career where I had senior level roles in quality organizations and, most recently, started my own organization appropriately titled, The Untold Narratives. I do wonder, though, what my life would have been like if I had been surrounded by more people in my professional life who looked like me, who came from similar backgrounds to mine and who pushed me beyond where I safely thought I could reach.
I remember a conversation I had with a member of my team many years ago. We were discussing long-term career goals and they shared that they did not see themselves in a larger leadership role. As this person’s boss, I had to admit I was surprised, because I did see that for them. This person had strong analytical skills, strong collaboration skills and a willingness to learn and reflect – all attributes I consider to be the foundation for larger leadership-level positions, so I had to carefully contemplate my response. This person is a person of color who I know from discussions also did not see many people like themselves in leadership positions. I couldn’t tell if they were saying that they didn’t want to be in a leadership role because they truly did not see themselves in that type of role, or if they were reacting to the fact that there had been a lack of representation in their professional lives.
When there is lack of representation, many people don’t live up to their full potential. From my observations over the years, living up to one’s full potential is part internal drive and part external opportunities. With a lack of representation, it seems impossible to achieve certain positions unless you are exceptional or unless you have a champion. If you in any way feel like you don’t belong, then how can you achieve? You honestly need an internal drive that’s made of steel, or you need that strong champion. A champion can create opportunities for you and push you into roles you may not see for yourself. I know I personally shied away from certain roles because I didn’t want to stand out. I didn’t want to push harder because, really, what I had achieved was enough, wasn’t it?
My response to my team member actually was easier for me to formulate than I had expected. I said “I understand that you don’t see this for yourself, but as your boss, I see this for you. This is a role you can accomplish and excel in, so I wonder if you are hesitant because of lack of representation or if deep down a leadership role like this one is not one you want? If the latter, that’s fine. If the former, let’s discuss ways that you can start to visualize the role for yourself and discuss the ways I can support you in this journey because the profession, the organization and I need you.” No pressure, though!
It’s not easy to be on an island when you want to succeed and want great things for yourself and your family. That’s why I have made the commitment to be a champion of people who are simply trying to come up in the world but have few role models that look like them or who understand what it’s like to move beyond low expectations. Until we change the narrative of imposter syndrome to truly understand the role of representation and how lack of it affects our growth, we need champions and people willing to see beyond us as individuals faking it until we’re making it. Let’s create the representation we need and be there for each other as we continue to create spaces of belonging.
Elizabeth Santiago, PhD is an author, educator, learning experience designer and founder of The Untold Narratives. Contact her at email@example.com