How I Claim Physical Space as a Woman of Color
A client recently asked me for advice on how a leader should physically position themselves to facilitate more inclusive meetings. The answer quickly flowed out of me, because body language and body positioning is something I often think and teach about in the context of career advancement. In a nutshell, how we use our bodies matters.
As a woman of color, I’ve also been forced to think about how I claim physical space in my professional life. I’ve become an expert on it—not just because I teach leadership for a living, but because in order to be seen, heard, and respected as a woman of color in workplaces, I’ve had to pay extra attention to this aspect of how I present myself.
Why is it Important for Women of Color to Claim Physical Space?
Women of color have intersecting identities—and as a result, we are on the receiving end of both gender bias and racial bias. As I’ve said before, the impact of this bias on how we experience the world is real—and because of this, many of us have developed personal strategies for navigating around this reality.
I’d be the first to say that having to take proactive steps to shield against bias as a woman of color adds insult to injury—you might be thinking, “I’m the one experiencing bias here and, on top of that, it’s on me to take steps to deflect it?!” I totally get it—and in fact, I think often about how shitty it is to experience the burden of the oppressed.*
That said, I’ve seen how it’s been helpful to my own career development to actively shield against bias. I’ve found that one of the most effective ways to do this in a career context as a woman of color is to consciously and deliberately take up physical space—using body language and body positioning—in ways that assert my power and make others more likely to notice me in a positive way.
Here are a few of the ways that we as women of color can strategically claim physical space in our work lives as a means of standing in our power, being seen, and projecting authority—essentially, signaling to others how we should be seen.
Sit in Your Power at Meetings
One of the biases often leveled at women of color is that we’re not seen as being authoritative, and we’re not associated with positions of power. Because of this, when I’m running a meeting, I always sit at the head of the table to signal my power in the room.
I also tend to perch on the edge of my chair, lean my body forward, and use expansive/animated arm gestures to command attention and take up more physical space. It also helps me to sit with my spine straight and my shoulders relaxed with my feet flat on the floor (which also has the benefit of promoting deep breathing).
If you’re not in a leadership position, consider sitting next to the leader. You’re more likely to be alert and present during the meeting if you sit there, and you’re more likely to be noticed, too, since everyone will already be looking in that direction.
When you speak, use your body language to take up physical space—sit up straight, lean forward, and use hand or arm gestures to the degree that feels natural and comfortable for you.
All of this helps to signal authority and presence, which ultimately should help you to be taken seriously and viewed as powerful by others.
Use Power Poses for Confidence and Presence
In her research on the effectiveness of power poses, the formidable Amy Cuddy emphasizes that your body changes your mind, your mind changes your behavior, and your behavior changes outcomes. Whether you’re presenting in front of a group, attending an event, or having a discussion with a colleague in the hallway, how you position your body while standing can have a profound impact on how others perceive you—and how powerful you yourself will feel.
In her book Presence (which I refer to in The Authenticity Principle), Cuddy explains how putting yourself into a power position (standing up straight, feet hip-distance apart, facing forward, hands on your hips—think tadasana or “mountain pose” in yoga) will automatically help to decrease cortisol (the stress hormone) and increase testosterone (the confidence hormone), which will help you feel more empowered.
To learn more about how you can use power poses, check out Cuddy’s awesome TED Talk.
Assert Yourself in Groups—Even When It’s Tough
Whenever I am in a group setting, particularly if I’m one of the only women of color, I’m alive to the fact that I may not be seen or heard unless I’m deliberate about it.
I can remember one women’s leadership event I went to that was attended exclusively by white women (and me). At the event, I felt overlooked, ignored, and disrespected by the attendees that I introduced myself to. It was years ago, and I haven’t forgotten the pain of that experience to this day. Unfortunately, this will sound familiar for many women of color.
There may not have been much I could do to overcome the biases present at that event, but in general there are a few things we can do to shield against bias and prevent ourselves from being overlooked in group settings.
Firstly, when you join circles of conversation, don’t hang towards the back—insert yourself assertively, and stand next to the person who’s talking. Next, make sure you speak at least once in the discussion, and when you do, speak loudly enough to be heard.
Don’t hold back in being yourself when you speak—be authentic and let your spirit shine through. If you’re struggling with confidence or nerves in this kind of situation, use the power of self-coaching (positive, encouraging words) to guide yourself through.
* * *
Facing the realities of insidious gender and racial bias is incredibly difficult to withstand. Being overlooked and undervalued hurts. And, as mentioned, it also feels unfair that as women of color we must go to greater lengths to ensure that our voices are heard and our presence is felt.
But at the end of the day, you deserve to live the life that you want—and to thrive in your career. Know that you are worthy. Literally claim your space.
* I first heard this term from fellow social justice activist Jeewan Chanicka. I credit him for this term and I’m so glad that I learned it from him, because it’s something that I think about all the time.