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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Is It Toxic? I'm a South Asian Female Executive, And My Authority Is Consistently Undermined

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Welcome to “Is It Toxic?” our advice column for the most pressing questions you have about toxic work situations but didn’t know who to ask—until now. Here to help is Benish Shah, a startup operator who’s coached executives and managers on navigating toxic workplaces, negotiating exits, and architecting workplace policies to combat toxic cultures. She’s currently working on a book about creating anti-toxic workplaces. Have a question to submit? You can reach her at or @benishshah. And for more advice, visit our Toxic Aware hub.

Dear Benish,

I recently started a new job as an executive at a startup. I’m a successful executive and operator, and I’ve built more than one company from the ground up. I was hired here to do the same—to build out an operational framework and scale this company—and yet, my experience has been called into question on several occasions. It’s also been used to undermine or blatantly disregard my recommendations, and even my decisions. I have an advanced degree, and experience scaling companies, hiring teams, developing processes, raising funds—everything you would need to be in my role and then some. I even took a pay cut to join this startup because I believed in the work. It got worse a few months ago, when one of the other leaders was visibly surprised upon hearing that I did not grow up poor. Her words were, “I just assumed you were an immigrant.” I told her I was an immigrant, and that I was born in Bangladesh, to which she said, “But most women like you don’t come with…this access.” I said I didn’t understand, and she finally said, “You know what I mean, no one from those countries is that pedigreed. Good for you.” A few days later, another person told me that I shouldn’t act like an expert because I wasn’t one. Then a junior employee told me, “Your background doesn’t give you the experience to do this.” That’s the first time I understood that maybe the “background” that was being referred to wasn’t my professional experience. This is not my first rodeo and my mandate is to improve processes to get the company scale-ready. It is the reason I got this job. Now I’m wondering whether I walked into a toxic environment and should cut my losses and leave.

Too-Confident in D.C.

Dear Too-Confident in D.C.,

In my 15+ year career that comes with a law degree, bar license, several industry awards, and time at groundbreaking companies, the most common criticism I hear when I’m hired to improve processes and systems is: “She doesn’t have the experience to do X.” I have found, through each of these scenarios, that there is nothing in this world that makes people more uncomfortable than a woman of color who is comfortable in her own skin.

Women of color, brown women specifically, often reach senior positions by being direct, smart, strategic, and having the uncanny ability to identify and solve problems that others do not want to deal with. I secretly believe this has something to do with growing up in large, complex communities that forced us to navigate politics since toddlerhood, though I do not have any quantitative research to back that claim. (Though I do have enough conversations, coaching sessions, and late-night career crisis advice conversations to support me in my theory.)

What you described is the underpinnings of a toxic work culture that is tearing you down in the only way it knows how to: by questioning your credibility. This particular type of culture can be difficult to navigate because it rarely gives you the “aha!” moment; everything seems low-key uncomfortable and inappropriate, but nothing rises to the level of “this is unequivocally wrong.”

Let’s address the components you mentioned.

The Experience Myth

The idea that someone does not have experience doing the exact thing they were hired to do at a startup is often laughable because the purpose of a startup is to do something that has never been done before. Startups are supposed to be innovators, game changers, and often, industry-makers. When they hire someone, they should be hiring for skill sets rather than industry experience. Industries can be learned; very few industries are so complex that a skilled operator cannot be a quick study. Smart startup founders know this—that’s why they hire operators who understand how to build and learn fast.

Where “industry experience” is most commonly sought is in industries that are having trouble staying afloat because they recycle the same thought processes over and over again, rather than search for new ways of doing things. A 2019 study referenced in Harvard Business Review concluded that experience does not predict success, despite it being an easy thing to point to when hiring.

Industry experience is a myth that is most often held against people who are trying to create systems-level change that threatens legacy members of companies. Systems-level changes mean that anyone who is underperforming will be identified, processes will require more efficiency, and those who were able to coast will not be able to coast anymore. Though this is rarely a conscious behavior from legacy employees, it does create a backpack that feels difficult to understand or wrap your head around.

My advice here would be to make sure your manager believes in you and that you are in close and consistent communication with them about what you are hearing and seeing. This behavior you are referencing is one of the reasons behind “imposter syndrome” and is built to undermine your credibility when you call out problems in the company. After all, it’s easy to say no one should listen to you if there can be a culture of believing you aren’t experienced.

The Immigrant Myth

There is an underlying assumption in the United States that immigrants, especially from the subcontinent of South Asia, all come from humble beginnings and therefore most show gratitude and humility for where they are in life. When brown immigrants do not fit that box or choose not to show overt gratitude for having the same rights as non-brown people around them, they are seen as problematic. Hasan Minhaj has called this “the audacity of equality”—a phrase that echoes in my mind often.

When you Google immigration in the U.S., the first few pages predominantly talk about immigration and poverty. The multitude of NGOs that have made brown faces their way to raise money has perpetuated the belief that if you are from a South Asian country you are impoverished, oppressed, and less pedigreed. So when a person of South Asian descent has the audacity to expect equal treatment or happens to have “equal pedigree” as their non-brown counterparts, it can be met with subconscious or conscious discomfort.

While that discomfort is often subconscious, in your instance it is more overt. Having someone say “women like you” or “no one from those countries is that pedigreed” demonstrates a conscious bias against you as a brown woman. Further, the comfort with which this person was able to make these statements speaks to an underlying acceptance of this behavior at your company—which is an indicator of quiet toxicity.

My suggestion would be to document these incidents in an email to both your manager and HR, keeping them apprised as to how these instances can turn into problems if not addressed. Make sure to keep emotions out of the communication with HR, sticking to the facts and laying out what was said to you. Note that regardless of context, these statements can be construed as inappropriate in a workplace. Your job is to scale this startup with better processes, and this reporting is part of it.

Bottom line: The startup you are describing does not have a healthy work culture and definitely is not demonstrating respect toward you. My big question to you is one I often ask myself at companies: If this is how you feel as an executive, how must other women or persons of color be feeling at your company? If you choose to stay and see this through, this would be one process change to consider. Otherwise, you’d be scaling a company that you know has the underpinnings of toxicity at an early stage. If you choose to cut your losses and move on, you’d be leaving an unhealthy work environment that is well on its way to toxicity—which could be better for your mental health. The only good thing is, the decision rests with you.

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