When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat

First your boss loves you, then they dislike you. Here’s how Black women can manage the icy transition.

Illustration: Ojima Abalaka

WWhen 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.

InIn the early part of the 2010s, Kecia M. Thomas, now an associate dean at the University of Georgia, participated in a year-long development program for Black women in academia. By the end of the program, she had coined the term “Pet to Threat” and in 2013 she made it official with a study backing up the racist behavior.

“There were 35 Black women from across the country at different stages in their career and I kept hearing the same sorts of issues,” Thomas says. “The women who were in the early phase of their careers would talk about being treated as a minor player or the paternalism of their male colleagues. The women who were mid-career were constantly feeling as though they were coming up against barriers even though they had already established high levels of performance. We were being treated like threats when we were just trying to develop our careers. One day in the lobby I said ‘well yeah, it seems like you go from pet to threat’ and that’s where the idea came from.”

Thomas, along with four others, published their findings in the 2013 academic paper entitled “Moving from Pet to Threat: Narratives of Professional Black Women,” based on data culled from interviews with five Black women faculty. The authors explain that early in their career, Black women may be treated as pets rather than professionals. They write, “A pet is beloved, cared for, and often treated in child-like fashion. The pet status for new professional employees suggests that new professional employees are not equal to their masters and that their masters know what is best for them, if only they behave appropriately.”

I think in every career trajectory there comes an opportunity for a promotion or leadership where the individual has a level of influence or power to make significant changes and to rethink how business is done. That’s when women are probably most vulnerable to getting recast as threatening.

Pets often experience feelings of tokenism, invisibility, pressure to assimilate, mistreatment, and being overprotected by colleagues. One interviewee, a junior faculty member, recalled how several colleagues would “speak on her behalf” even when she was in the room and how one colleague would go so far as to check all of her administrative assignments. “It made me think they imagined I was incompetent or not qualified for those duties,” she reported. Another recalled being made the face of several internal projects but not being given any responsibility.

When Black women resist their status as pets, they find themselves transforming into a threat. “I think in every career trajectory there comes an opportunity for a promotion or leadership, where the individual has a level of influence or power to make significant changes and to rethink how business is done. That’s when women are probably most vulnerable to getting recast as threatening, because their colleagues are pushing back on the person legitimately exerting their influence in the workplace,” Thomas says.

Black women seen as threats often experience microaggressions or punishment for challenging the status quo of the workplace. Another interviewee discussed how she was barred from supervising dissertations and thesis projects despite being requested to do so by students of color and how colleagues would advise students not to enroll in her classes.

TThe “pet to threat” phenomenon is not limited to academia. Bri Hardeman, who is 23 and just starting her career in risk assessment, has experienced being infantilized as work. “In the beginning, I had a co-worker who was often commenting on how cute and precious I was, and I eventually had to ask him to stop because although I do look young, I’m a professional,” she said.

More recently, Hardeman also feels like questions regarding work performance have been pushed aside with a generic response that everything is going fine, although she’s requested specific feedback so she can grow in her role. As she approaches two years in her position, she is considering looking for a new opportunity. Recently she says she has experienced hostility from her supervisor who criticized her for taking time off despite having approved the request. “Her feedback was that I should have known that it was a bad time to be out of the office even though she told me she was fine with it.”

Lynn, who asked that her full name not be used because of fear of retribution, works in the tech industry and says she always starts a new role as a pet. “I have always had bosses comment on how I’m smarter than them,” she explains. That recognition, however, often turns into resentment over time, which leads to her being perceived as a threat.

Things had been going smoothly at her current company until her previous boss left and was replaced with a new boss who, she says, is threatened by her. Although Lynn previously led a team with little supervision, she has now been excluded from executive-level meetings she previously attended. She’s also been blocked from having access to budget information which has prevented her making necessary additions to her team and she has been cut out of hiring decisions.

“I feel like my boss has basically created a layer to keep me in my place,” she says. Her annual review for 2019 would have been perfect, but for negative feedback left by her new boss. Lynn is frustrated because she knows how great things could be. “When I was running the team we were performing at a high level. Now it’s constant chaos and morale is low.”

Lauren Welch, who has over 10 years of experience in the marketing and nonprofit sectors, has been both the pet and the threat in the workplace. After attending college in Los Angeles, California, she moved to Cleveland, Ohio to begin her career. “Back then I was definitely treated as the shiny new penny in the workplace,” she says. That treatment shifted once Welch began to complain about inequality in the workplace. “I’ve definitely experienced having colleagues be angry at me for challenging the status quo.”

In one role, Welch complained to human resources after discovering that a colleague had shared social media posts that could be construed as anti-Black. Instead of responding to her concerns, the organization moved to discredit her. “I was dismissed as seeking attention instead of having my job tackle the issue of addressing a hostile work environment,” she says. In response, she adds, colleagues tried to find issues with her work product and blocked her access to information that would enable her to do her job.

AnAn initial sign that a woman may be transitioning from “pet to threat” is when previously-friendly colleagues are no longer collegial or when someone begins receiving pushback for legitimately exerting their influence within an organization. Other signs might be a lack of access to the same rewards and recognitions of White peers who have been promoted to similar titles that were achieved in similar ways, or having an expertise that is underutilized or ignored.

Thomas has advice for Black women who may be walking the tightrope between pet and threat in their respective workplaces.

“I think it’s important to have mentors and a strong network of peers, as well as people who are a few levels above you, career wise,” she explains. “I often refer to this as having a personal advisory board of people you can trust and be honest with who can provide you with feedback to help navigate some of the invisible currents we’re all swimming in. They can help you understand if the issue is with you or the organization and how to determine when to stay and course-correct, and when to look for a new employer.”

The original “Pet to Threat” study also advises Black women to consider taking on development opportunities outside of work to build experience as well as developing safe spaces (for example, relationships or places) to find affirmations for their achievements and contributions.

Thomas recalls how her network helped her to navigate her own career when she was a junior scholar and one of only three Black women in her department. “When I started doing research relating to diversity in the early ’90s, people were dismissive and questioned why I would waste time when I needed to be focused on getting tenure,” she says. One male colleague openly laughed at her when she told him she was submitting a proposal to study Black women in corporate America. “Having a network of other scholars, many of whom were women of color, became the people I collaborated with and sought advice from on a regular basis. It was the source of support I needed to persevere in my research,” she says.

The original “Pet to Threat” study also advises Black women to consider taking on development opportunities outside of work to build experience as well as developing safe spaces (for example, relationships or places) to find affirmations for their achievements and contributions.

Thomas’ advice rang true for me. After my first legal position, I made an effort to develop strong relationships with other Black lawyers. Eventually, I became a part of the leadership committee for an annual conference for Black lawyers. Having a group of peers who are navigating similar situations has allowed me to remain grounded while navigating a unique position in the workplace.

The advice is also a good reminder that there is more to us than our jobs.

I’m roughly six years removed from my first experience with “pet to threat.” Because of my status as a Black woman, I realize that I will always encounter challenges in my career. In those moments I remind myself that my employer can only control what happens within the four walls of our office and my value isn’t determined by what happens between 9-to-5.

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