Why Location Independence Is Better For Women of Color
As a minority woman (I’m a hapa in my thirties, for the demographically curious), there were many reasons why the default mode of get-up-and-go-to-the-office didn’t work well. I started my professional life in corporate law, a career traditionally dominated by white males. Even the names of major law firms – Davis, Polk, & Wardwell; Debevoise & Plimpton – read like the invitation list to a fete at Downton Abbey.
When I went remote, I noticed that I no longer had to deal with certain unpleasant workplace phenomena. Let’s do a roll call of the three main beasts that my remote lifestyle keeps at bay:
That Corporate “Look”
The last time I was in New York, I spent part of the week crashing with a good friend of mine. She’s a marketing executive at a major financial institution. Each morning, she woke up before dawn, made coffee, and disappeared into her bathroom. Some length of time later, she would emerge from her bathroom with hair as straight and swishy as a Fox News anchorwoman’s.
Many women straighten their hair before work. This isn’t news to me, but my friend is African-American. She has gorgeous, envy-inducing natural hair. My Asian hair is bone-straight. Curls don’t stick unless I freeze them into place with enough Aqua Net to make me look like an extra on The Awesome 80s Prom.
I can’t comment on why my friend straightens her hair. I don’t want to speak for her. But, as a remote employee, I don’t have to worry about my hair. Or anyone else’s hair. If I have to jump on a Skype call for 45 minutes, that’s 45 minutes of my day that I’m exposed to one person’s prejudices and snobberies and biases. If I went to work in a traditional office? We’re talking NINE HOURS of potential shade thrown at me from all sides.
Which brings me to…
As an M&A lawyer, I never knew if I’d be leaving the office at 6PM or 6AM, so I dressed for comfort – work pants that would keep me warm, layers, glasses instead of contact lenses, and hair in a bun.
I get that sex sells, and that applies to selling your labor as much as it applies to selling wine coolers or body wash or platinum credit cards. Pretty people are more likely to get jobs, raises, and promotions.
But, what is Pretty? According to many 100k-follower digital nomad accounts, Pretty is thin, white, and youthful. Pretty wears fluttery dresses, barely-there bikinis, and heeled footwear, even if Pretty is hiking. Pretty often travels with a boyfriend or husband (who is taking the pictures). Pretty dresses in a way that conforms to Western feminine cultural standards, regardless of where on the map she is – long hair uncovered and worn down, shoulders and knees exposed.
As a woman of Asian descent, my beauty often gets “orientalized” – I’m me-love-you-long-time, a Harajuku schoolgirl, a Filipina masseuse, a feisty ninjette. Or, I’m “exotic” – a word which, has often meant, “we’ll buy you dinner, bed you, and even marry you, but you’ll never be one of us.”
While I work from home, I don’t work in solitary confinement. We’ve got Skype. But location independence frees me from being judged daily (even subconsciously) on my appearance and clothing choices. I don’t get docked for failing to conform to That Corporate Look or traditional (read: white) beauty norms.
But, what about the flipside?
That #MeToo Thing
I can’t talk about beauty bias without talking about #MeToo.
And I can’t talk about #MeToo without talking about The Power.
Because sex is one thing, and sexual harassment is another. Sexual harassment is not about wearing a miniskirt short enough to make Ally McBeal blush. It’s about people with The Power taking advantage of those without it.
Who has held The Power for most of Western society?
White males: specifically white, Christian, straight, able-bodied males.
The more of those boxes you tick, the more of The Power you have. The less boxes you tick, the less of The Power you have. And the less of The Power you have, the less likely people will take you seriously if you accuse those with The Power of doing Something Very Bad. Like sexual harassment.
I can’t say I’ve never been harassed as a digital nomad. I spent five years working in Asia, where workplace norms are sometimes stuck in the Mad Men era. But, as a digital nomad, I can pick and choose my “workplace” interactions. All I need is a laptop and some fast wifi, amirite?
But Am I Doing It Wrong?
As I’m writing this, I realize I’m arguing that the digital nomad lifestyle is better for minority women because it removes us from the male-dominated, whitewashed corporate world.
Running from a problem doesn’t solve the problem. My corporate comfort zone may be my laptop and my kitchen table, or some on-trend co-working space with a Benetton-esque clientele. But, if I continue to retreat into my safe space, I will never get the chance to confront – and change – what’s toxic about traditional work culture.
Or, will I? Opting out is a powerful action, too.