Downshifting: Women of Color on the Road to Authentic Leadership

COLORfull Leadership Series (TM)

We all do it whether we want to admit it or not.  Women of color in leadership shift when walking into a room of white colleagues.  I was loath to admit this but research by Jones and Shorter-Gooden in their book, Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, clarified some of my behavior. They describe shifting this way, “Black women “shift” by altering the expectations they have for themselves or their outer appearance. They modify their speech. They shift “White” as they head to work in the morning and “Black” as they come back home each night. They shift inward, internalizing the searing pain of the negative stereotypes that they encounter daily.”  Yes, we shift but the question is, should we?  What do we lose by shifting, by not sharing our whole selves, by suppressing our culture and restraining our creativity?

There is no magic formula or measured standard for the shift.  The how much or how little is dependent on one’s personality or work environment.  My research on African-American women executives coping with race and gender bias reflects this.  Some of the respondents found it more necessary in certain environments, especially academia.  Others who worked in more culturally diverse environments found it a lot less necessary, pulling out this device when meeting with funders, or in industry meetings. They all used different tactics. A high-level administrator offered she used her humor to make everyone comfortable, an outward sign of comradery, an “I’m one of you so trust me’ prerequisite before offering policy changes or critical thought on needed strategy.

While shifting often refers to refining one’s speech, toning down one’s voice or tapping down culturally identifiable accents, it even creeps into physical appearance. I personally remember being cautioned about wearing my hair in its natural state instead of my long-held, straight permed, shoulder-length look.  I was emailed and invited to lunch by well-meaning friends and colleagues who kindly suggested I conform.  They were concerned about me and were truly trying to be helpful. What they didn’t know was I was downshifting.  Initially, it was an unconscious draw toward complete authenticity.  However, after over 20 years of senior leadership, I was exhausted and wanting to just be me.  I’d have to deal with the consequences later.

I was also motivated to downshift because, as a senior leader, I was becoming a mentor.  My office was being filled by young women who wanted to know what they needed to do to get on top or how to deal with issues where they felt race was a factor.  One shared, “We’ve been talking about you.  When our mothers tell us we have to straighten our hair, we say Ms. Russell is a CEO and she has an afro puff!” This confirmed that I could not coach emerging leaders of color by telling them they too had to first be twice as good and after that, they had to scrub their cultural identities as well.  I understood why my own mentors suggested it because it worked for them, giving some access to the C-Suite and making them “first” in companies and in families to reach these once only dreamed of levels of success.  Dressed in St. John suits, hair beautifully straightened and styled, emotions in check, smart as whips, always helpful–they broke down barriers for us.  They did what they had to do.  But my interviews revealed that they’d paid a price.  The emotional scars were apparent.  They’d suppressed fear and anger, they gritted teeth as mediocre conquered their great, several wished they’d not shifted quite as much.

My experiences as an executive leader bought me to this intersection.  My own intersections of black and woman created weight I no longer wanted to carry.  No, I couldn’t just flip a switch and expect everything to change but shifting was exhausting and the payoff is still not clear. The benefits of stopping however are.  I am more creative, happier, and more confident.  My inner change has created an outward response as well.  Folks are asking if I’ve lost weight (I wish!) or telling me I look happier and even younger!  They want to hear about my work and are drawn in by my passion for it.  I may have even added a year or two to my life.   Shifting out of culture and race didn’t allow people to know the whole me—for better or worse.  They didn’t know who they were accepting or rejecting.    A quote by Zora Neale Hurston played in my brain, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I identified experiences where I was dismissed or overlooked and smiled and said it was okay, ensuring that the bridge wasn’t burned even though I was being mistreated. My evolving philosophy became, “How can I expect them to know me if I don’t tell them who I am.”

It is no secret that Brown and Black mouths aren’t allowed to deliver bad news or criticize in the same manner as White mouths.  But what if we challenge this social norm?  What if we, women of color, simply downshift and stop trying to make other people any more comfortable than they make us?  What if we, like white men, express what we believe without self-suppression?  Social norms don’t simply change–they are driven.

Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell is the President and Chief Cultural Consultant of BW3, a diversity, equity, and inclusion practice.  She has also developed the COLORfull Leadership Series ™ where she facilitates workshops and retreats and speaks on topics including, “Black and White Women: A Matter of Trust” and Down Shifting: Women on the Road to Authenticity.  Contact her at


Dnika, J. Travis, Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon, and Courtney McCluney, (2016). Emotional Tax: How Black Women and Men Pay More at Work and How Leaders Can Take Action. Catalyst

Jones, C., & Shorter-Gooden, K. (2003). Shifting: The double lives of Black women in America. New York: HarperCollins.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s