When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat

When I started my first job as an attorney eight years ago, I was full of excitement. I had managed to secure the position despite a significant reduction in entry level positions due to the 2009 financial crisis. The summer before landing my role, I was an intern at the firm, where I researched case law and was showered with lush perks like tickets to the Tony awards and front row seats to the NBA draft. Those perks continued in my full-time role, a position that paid more than I — or frankly anyone in my family — had ever made. I was also one of four Black women in an entry level class of over 60 associates.

The first year sped by in a blur of billable hour requirements. When I stopped to reflect on my career development at the end of 2012, I recognized a disconnect. I was well-liked by the partners, but I was falling behind in gaining respect around the office and, as a result, I was unable to secure more substantial work. I was saddled with document review, a tedious task of reviewing emails to see if they qualified as potential evidence in a litigation, or working on nonbillable marketing projects while my White peers were billing hours by drafting motions and taking the depositions of expert witnesses.

I went to the manager of my department and the head of diversity and expressed my desire for bigger assignments, but I was repeatedly told to be patient. Eventually, I began to wake up every morning with a mix of resentment and depression. I was resentful that I was facing a long day of work that I was overqualified to do and depressed that I seemingly couldn’t do anything to improve the situation. I also began to question my abilities. Although the rational part of my brain knew that racial bias was likely at play, I still felt that I would be getting better assignments if I were more capable.

After another 12 months of being underutilized, I decided to look for a new opportunity to get the litigation opportunities I had been missing out on. The process of giving notice and the conversations that unfolded during my final two weeks were miserable. There was a general attitude from my employer that I was ungrateful and wrong to complain about my lack of advancement. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had likely been the victim of a workplace phenomenon known as “pet to threat.” This happens when women, typically Black women, are embraced and groomed by organizations until they start demonstrating high levels of confidence and excel in their role, a transition that may be perceived as threatening by employers.

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