Breaking the Bias: A look at colorism and sexism in the workplace


In March the world celebrated women’s month under the theme ‘Breaking the bias.’ In this article I talk about colorism as an aspect of the gender biases that characterize recruitment processes with primary focus on the interview room in the global south where I have drawn inspiration to pen this. This recruitment space is important because it is a gateway to accessing the right to work and equal work conditions. Regardless of the fight women have put to belong in an environment where their right to work and equal work conditions are promoted and secured the existence of gender biases in the workplace is not a surprise. There is still a tendency to prefer one talent to another on the basis of gender, race, disability, age etc. This right to work and equal work conditions has not been universally realised.

 Colorism in African society

Colorism is the dislike and unfair treatment of the members of a particular racial group who have darker skin color than others. In Africa where most of the workforce is black and managed by black managers racism is not a big problem in comparison to America and other European countries. The American and European society has played a big role in increasing our awareness of it especially in the show business, movie industry and the modelling industry where dark skinned women have been marginalized. In recent years prominent women like Viola Davis, Lupita Nyongo and Tyra Banks have led conversation on the challenges they have faced and are fighting in their industries.

Picture by Elle

Colorism is highly prevalent in Africa, as a residue of the colonial legacy and due to influence from the beauty industry. It affects women more than men and is responsible for high use of skin lightening products by women of all ages. These women fear being less attractive to their potential suitors and partners than the skin cancers that they become vulnerable to through use of skin lighteners. Society is particularly harsh to women who are darker as they are not associated with beauty and attractiveness. For some who are not born with pride in their natural existence it takes a special kind of courage to present themselves in their black and beautiful pigments. As a result, the World Health Organisation statistics show that 40% of African women bleach their skin with countries like Nigeria, Togo, South Africa, Senegal and Mali respectively recording 77%, 59%, 35%, 27% and 25% usage of skin lightening products.

Colorism in the workplace

Unfortunately, colorism is not only affecting women in social spaces only but those in the workplaces too where skill and intelligence should matter the most. Colorism plays a role in the workplace for black females because of beliefs surrounding attractiveness and smartness. These beliefs are of course rooted in racial biases. In the 1940s psychologists designed and conducted a series of experiments known as the ‘doll tests’ to study the psychological effects of racism on African American children aged between 3 and 7.

The study revealed that white dolls got assigned positive characteristics of beauty, intelligence, success, amicability compared to black dolls that were assigned negative characteristics. These psychological perceptions are no different to the ones associated with colorism.

Picture taken from Peaceful Science

Matthew S. Harrison states that it is common for lighter skinned black women to have higher salaries than black women with darker skin tones who have very similar resumes. Thompson and Keith (2001) explain that dark skinned women experience the triple jeopardy situation due to their race, gender and skin tone, where all can have negative and damaging effects on her esteem and feelings of competency.

Impact on recruitment

Skin pigmentation is playing a role in how women are being hired and this is starting in the interview room where men and women who have overt and concealed colorism biases sit to select the most suitable candidates for a job. Darker skinned women find themselves needing to perform thrice as much lighter skinned women and men. Where jobs may need one to interface with the public there is an inclination towards hiring women who are lighter skin for the sake of the public and business. From a business perspective it is thought that lighter toned women will bring in more business from men who are likely to just drop in to catch a glance at the office beauty while female customers may associate them with being kind and understanding. Shockingly simple comments such as “She is a beauty the boys will like her” and “She is too ugly to put at the front office” have been uttered by hiring managers in interview rooms.  Interestingly jobs that require hard decisions to be made and which become open during crisis times are more likely to be given to darker toned women. Colorist views should never dominate interview room decisions. Where job descriptions are not mentioning beauty, attractiveness and skin tone as a criterion, standards about the same should never clandestinely find themselves deciding the grading of candidates.

The dangers of colorism and sexist biases

Such perceptions are dangerous and disadvantageous. Obviously, there is a high risk of losing talent in dark toned women if colorist perceptions are allowed expression. There is danger that their views and ideas will not be picked simply because of their skin tone. They can easily be associated with aggression, cruelty, and masculinity probably because they find themselves having to push harder than anyone in the office due to the multiple layers of discrimination they experience.

 On the other hand, colorist perceptions in recruitment expose lighter toned women to sexual harassment. Attractiveness and beauty easily get associated with sluttiness and availability. Sexist and misogynistic values thrive where colorist perceptions are promoted. The male hiring managers and the rest of the male workforce can easily think these ‘pretty’ coworkers are available for their picking. Also, female hiring managers and other female workforce that may be promoters of colorist views can side with the men and allow exploitative conditions to thrive. Women victims of colorism can easily blame lighter skin toned women for becoming victims of sexual harassment in the workplace and can even celebrate their demise due to their resentment of some ‘perks and privileges’ that light skin toned women get to enjoy from bosses and coworkers. Additionally, the competency of light skin toned women can be easily overlooked due to emphasis on beauty and attractiveness by hiring managers, bosses, and colleagues. Of course, some light skin toned women have enjoyed the privileges that come with their skin tone.

At the end of the day none of these women win! When everyone enters the workplace, they want their skills and competences related to the work they have been hired to do to define their professional standing. Positively, all women are realizing the need to fight this vice as a collective.

What can we do?

The first step in challenging biases is becoming aware of the biases. We should talk about these biases wherever they are evident and any incident that promotes them should be challenged immediately. If you are a hiring manager and the issue comes up from others on the panel you should immediately explain why colorist perspectives can’t be used to inform the competency of a candidate. Company policies particularly those on diversity and inclusion should address colorism and companies must educate their workers on the same policies. Management must make it clear to staff that colorism will not be tolerated in the workplace and they should be exemplary in their own conduct.


Colorism is an oppressive that system that marginalises both light and dark skin toned women in the workplace. It has no place in progressive workplaces that promote gender equality and inclusion. It is important to become aware of it and to address it as part of creating inclusive work environments.



Sexual harassment is a challenging situation that most people, particularly women, are faced within the workplace. While it is mostly experienced by women men also experience it and the unwelcome advances can be same sex and heterosexual in nature. It is also a power relation issue that normally affects those in a weaker position more. As a result, men, particularly those who are powerful, rich and in authority are usually perpetrators, however powerful women too can be perpetrators of sexual harassment. Just like workplace bullying, which I talked about in my last article, sexual harassment can negatively affect worker morale and productivity. Therefore, everyone who wears the employee hat should know how to manage it.


According to Reva B Siegel (2003) sexual harassment is a social practice that has institutional and semiotic lives. Social practices have histories it is therefore important to have a historical understanding of the harassment. In this article the institutional life of sexual harassment is discussed within the workplace.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) sexual harassment is a serious manifestation of sex discrimination and a violation of human rights. It can encompass a range of behaviors that include:

  • Gendered harassment- sexist statements and behaviour, obscene jokes about sex
  • Seductive behaviour- unwanted, inappropriate, and offensive sexual advances
  • Sexual bribery- soliciting for sexual favor in return for a reward
  • Sexual coercion- coercion of sexual activity or other sex-linked behavior by threat of punishment
  • Sexual imposition- gross sexual imposition like touching, feeling, and grabbing or sexual assault

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines it as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission or rejection implicitly or explicitly affects your work life outcomes.


More often than not, by the time you are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace you will have experienced it elsewhere- in the home, at church or in the public. You will probably think it is happening to you only, but you need to know this is a global pandemic that is rooted in patriarchy and gender discrimination. Patriarchy describes a general structure in which men have power over women throughout organized society and individual relationships. Patriarchy also affects men due to the hierarchy among men which places elder me over younger generations of men- the hierarchy varies due to different forms of power relations among men. This means that all genders – cis gendered and transgendered people get to experience sexual harassment as perpetrators or victims. Originally patriarchy excluded woman from the workplace therefore sexual harassment is one of the many ways that it still works to push women out of the workplace.

Women are the most affected group. According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a non-partner. The violence typically starts early with 1 in 4 women aged between 15-24 years being in a relationship where they have already experienced violence. Workplaces mirror our society therefore this reality is true in many of them.

Intersectionality variables make some women more vulnerable to sexual harassment than others for example women with disabilities can be more vulnerable because they face disability exclusions on top of gender exclusions and poverty can increase their vulnerability. Even in the group of women with disabilities the vulnerabilities can vary due to the nature of disability. A womn who is visually impaired can be affeected differently from a woman with hearing impairments. Similarly with our different sexualities becoming more visible in today’s worklaces the vulnerability within the LGBTIQ community will not be homogenous and the history of their marginalisation cant be ignored. Other intersexctionality aspects to be considered include culture, race, nationality, religion, class, age etc.

You have a responsibility to be mindful of this historical overview when you get into any workplace. Always be midful about your own actions by watching what you say or do, be aware of your own power so that you do not find yourself perpetrating this negative trait.


Sexual harassment has negative consequences for your work output, mental and physical health. Knowing that you have someone who is going to be making unwanted advances can easily make you hate your job. You can easily move from looking forward to getting down to a project with a colleague to avoiding them and any tasks where you must collaborate. In today’s workplaces teamwork and collaboration is very important. Therefore, when you are avoiding workmates and disliking your work your team members also begin to suffer.

They may start finding it hard to work with you especially if you start experiencing anxiety and depression which may result in tardiness and missing deadlines. You may find yourself angry all the time and that too will impact your interpersonal skills. Soft skills are as important as your ability to complete a task therefore the negative impact on your ability to communicate and influence is significant. There is always a threat of escalation into worst forms of sexual harassment like rape. These will have you worrying also about your physical health because of the risk of succumbing to sexually transmitted diseases.


No matter how powerless you feel you should never allow a sexual harassment situation to perpetuate itself. Below are some things you can do to manage bullying in the workplace (some of the actions under my bullying article are relevant and included here)

  1. Keep record on the sexual harassment behaviour
  2. Clearly communicate your rejection of the requests and advances. Always leave paper trail for future reference
  3. Check national policy to know the obligations of your employer on the issue and to know the policies that protect you.
  4. Check and use company policy. Once you know where to report always tell the aggressor that you are going to report them and always follow through on your word
  5. Get counselling to guard your mental and physical health
  6. There is power in numbers. Share your experiences with work colleagues to raise awareness, build solidarity and find help.
  7. Read about sexual harassment, patriarchy, and gender to empower yourself and others
  8. Leave the job if you can’t change the environment and if your safety is at risk


For some employers this may seem to be an employee problem which is none of their business. But as you have already read sexual harassment affects work output and this makes it their business. It is therefore good business to create a work environment that does not promote any form of sexual harassment. Investing in policies that promote gender equity and protection is very important. Adult safeguarding policies, whistle blowing policies, training are all good investments. Accessible and safe reporting platforms should be available and known to employees.


Sexual harassment is rooted in patriarchy, and it is important for you to know and understand how this system works. Recognise the powerplays and utilize the accountability channels available to neutralize that abused power. Employers have a responsibility to ensure an environment that does not promote the harassment of employees- they should consider vulnerable employees and establish protection measures.

Dealing with bullying in the workplace


Bullying is something we normally associate with school playgrounds and childhood. When we encounter it in the workplace, we usually do not classify this negative behavior in adults as bullying and if we do, we really do not know what to do about it. Without a mum or dad to share our bullying experience with and having them report to our class teacher so that the issue is addressed we generally feel helpless. In this article I help you understand the characteristics of workplace bullying and how to deal with it decisively and professionally.

Photo by Kat J on Unsplash


According to the Cambridge dictionary bullying is when one behaves in a manner that is meant to hurt or frighten someone smaller or less powerful, often forcing that person to do what they do not want to do. It can be influenced by aspects like racism, homophobia, sexism, tribalism, ageism, and all other isms that will be useful in justifying instilling fear, pain, exclusion and repression. Usually, one experiences repeated intimidatory incidences therefore one can name and describe a pattern of behaviour by the bully. With the increased use of the internet in our daily life cyber bullying is becoming a common phenomenon. The distinguishing aspect of workplace bullying is that it happens in a workplace environment. This includes your physical place of work like an office, your workplace email and other e-systems where you interact and any other places where you engage with workmates on work related issues. Sometimes bullying tendencies can transfer into your private space if the bully has access to your private life.


Anyone can be a bully, and anyone can be bullied. Bullies are normally individuals who are very insecure. In the workplace they are normally insecure about their professional capacity. They secure their position by pulling down others. They are afraid and mask their fear through their cruel behaviour. If you look inside them, you will identify where their fear comes from. Most of the time they need help to be better persons. While that is so it is not your mission and responsibility to make them better. Just as anyone can be a bully anyone can be bullied. Therefore you should never accept the position of weakness that can allow you to be manipulated and undermined. You did not come with such a tag at creation.


Below are some examples of workplace bullying that have been listed by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. It is important to note that these examples can be difficult to classify as bullying if they have happened once. They can also be experienced overtly or subtly.

  • Denying a person tools for their work for no reason
  • Spreading malicious rumours, gossip, or innuendo.
  • Excluding or isolating someone socially.
  • Intimidating a person.
  • Undermining or deliberately impeding a person’s work.
  • Physically abusing or threatening abuse.
  • Removing areas of responsibilities without cause.
  • Constantly changing work guidelines.
  • Establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail.
  • Withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information.
  • Making jokes that are ‘obviously offensive’ by spoken word or e-mail.
  • Intruding on a person’s privacy by pestering, spying or stalking.
  • Assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavourable to one person (in a way that creates unnecessary pressure).
  • Underwork – creating a feeling of uselessness.
  • Yelling or using profanity.
  • Criticizing a person persistently or constantly.
  • Belittling a person’s opinions.
  • Unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment.
  • Blocking applications for training, leave or promotion.
  • Tampering with a person’s personal belongings or work equipment


No matter how powerless you feel you should never allow a bullying situation to perpetuate itself. Below are some things you can do to manage bullying in the workplace

Photo by Dee @ Copper and Wild on Unsplash

Keep record on the bullying behaviour

The first thing you can do to address bullying is recording the evidence of bullying. Never delete emails, documents, recorded voice conversations and video incidences of bullying because you will need to demonstrate the patterned behavior that constitutes bullying.  Where there is no physical evidence take note of the incident, date, time, place and the witnesses.

Check company policy

Most companies have policies that spell out how bullying is handled. If you are not aware of such a policy visit the human resources office or equivalent and find out if your company has any laid out procedures to address bullying. If such a policy exists read and understand it, ask questions to the person responsible for the policy. Use the policy content to manage your bullying experiences and make sure the bully knows that you are aware of the company policy and that you will act on it if they continue. Remember that consultation is not escalation. If the bullying continues follow the steps that are laid out in policy to seek remedy from your employer.

Get counselling

Workplace bullying can be traumatic. It can lead to depression, low self esteem and even physical illness and pain. Seek the services of professional counsellors to help you manage your emotions, mental health and physical body. Most workplaces nowadays have wellness policies that provide workers with inhouse or contracted counselling services at no cost to the employee. If your workplace does not have such services find ways to get counselling either through private practitioners, community services or through family and friends if you cannot afford to pay for the service. Getting counselling is important because it helps you process what you are going through, to regain your internal superpower and it improves your self-esteem. An improved self esteem will help you face the bully with confidence which can usually be intimidating to the bully. Without counselling a victim of bullying can sometimes become a perpetrator as part of their process to heal. Hurt people hurt others.

Share your experiences with work colleagues

Always find someone in your workplace whom you can share your experiences with.  Sharing your experiences may lead you to identifying other victims of the bullying, finding allies in managing the situation and locating empathisers who can help you map solutions. In some cases you may sadly find out who is an ally to the bully and some may never clarify their position on the matter, therefore share cautiously.

Leave the job

Sometimes it is impossible to get remedy either because a workplace has got no policy in place to deal with bullying, the bully is in a position of power and cannot be challenged and there is no support from colleagues and managers. In such instances the only option is to leave the unhealthy work environment. Believe you me no job is worth staying at if you must sacrifice your superpower and professional progress. Leaving will allow you to heal of the trauma that bullying brings. It will also open you up to finding a new job in a place that values and protects you and to identify new places where you can thrive.


Bullying happens in the workplace. Like everywhere else bullies are normally very insecure and afraid people who hide behind their mean nature- you should not be afraid of them. Always check for company policies that protect you in the workplace. Do not hesitate to use them and where there are no policies advocate for them. Put yourself first and never allow an unhealthy environment to take a toll on you.