When I was 26 years old, I opened Philadelphia’s first female co-working space. Tired of male-dominated spaces where I would see women objectified every day, I wanted to create a safe and productive space for women like myself to get work done. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, though I unfortunately experienced some internet trolling over the gender exclusiveness with comments like, “If a man opened up a space like this, there would be riots in the streets!” News flash — most institutions, sports teams, private clubs, and C-Suite level roles are already dominated by men. I was merely trying to close the gap while building up the female entrepreneurs around me.
Month after month, I worked to keep the lights on with no backers, VC funds, or angel investors; it was up to me to use my own income to fund the space until I could no longer keep up and ultimately had to shut it down. People have since referenced the space as “ahead of its time,” but after seeing recent stories of The Wing, an all-women’s coworking space later found to be a breeding ground for racism, I see it differently. The reality is, many white women claim to be working towards equity under the guise of feminism while perpetuating the same white supremicist and patriarchal standards that limit women of color.
Years after I closed the door on The Hive, I read stories of the women of The Wing who burned through funds while ostracizing Black and Latinx women who dared to enter their space. Because they were women, their community was automatically labeled as inclusive when they were anything but. Though we group women together with catch-alls like “Women’s History Month” and slogans like “support all women,” the reality is that there is a large divide between women from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds when put in the same straight-from-Pinterest room.
So when I recently received a LinkedIn friend request and private message from a prominent Philadelphia non-profit leader about whether my profile photo was “the most professional shot [I] have?” and how this person was “curious about what [I’m] communicating in business,” I took offense. My profile photo was a representation of me as a creative woman and being my own boss — smiling in my beautiful apartment wearing a floral top that did not hide my curves. While most people who I shared this message with assumed it was a man that reached out, it was actually a white woman who was older and more advanced in her career than me.
I’ve been in rooms full of men who’ve overlooked me, spoken over me, or even completely ignored me. But to experience this internalized misogyny from a stranger — and a woman — was a shock. What’s even more frustrating is the time I spent responding to her and holding her accountable for her words. As a web designer and branding expert, I put complete intention into the image I put out into the world and my social media. Rather than view my list of accomplishments and roles I’ve held on my LinkedIn page, she put her focus on attempting to police my body. Women of color are tired of defending ourselves in professional settings.
I believe in holding people accountable for their actions and words, and that doesn’t necessarily mean so-called “cancel culture.” In the case of my LinkedIn message, I sent a private response to the sender and shared our exchange publicly without revealing her identity in order to create an opportunity to educate and share my experience on a public scale. Showing her face seemed counterproductive to the larger issue at hand, and I wanted others to see what a microaggression toward a brown woman looks like. There are so many instances of women of color being silenced or too afraid to share their negative and toxic experiences in the workplace, and I’m over it. I’m over the disrespect we face and I’m not afraid of sharing these situations for the world to acknowledge, understand, and prevent from happening again.
I encourage everyone to take a look at your own workplace and the culture. How are you playing a part to dismantle the systems of oppression from the top down? How many of your directors and managers represent actual diversity in your office? How has your own entitlement from race, class, and gender played a role? Are you the type of person who will stand up for women and people of color when you see them experience racial microaggressions or sexual harassment, or are you the type to ignore and minimize blatant situations because it doesn’t affect you? It’s long past time to speak out.
Melissa Alam is the Founder & Creative Director of ALAM Digital, a boutique creative agency that elevates mission-driven brands through strategic branding and web design.