On my first day as an editorial intern, my anxiety walked into the office before I did. Anxiety that I’d be the only Black person on my desk, the only visibly Muslim on my floor. And I was right – my entire desk was white. To my relief, I soon met Sara, an Algerian from East London and a recent graduate like me. Like a well-timed rom com, we were soon mapping out our lives during lunches, swapping stories about Somaliland and Algeria and wondering why the coffee machine was both a point of contention and the most frequented spot in the office.
You’ve seen these friendships reflected in culture from Nigel and Andy in Devil Wears Prada to Olivia and Abby from Scandal. Urban Dictionary describes a work wife as a “symbolic marriage between co-workers” or a “substitute for your wife while you are at work”. According to Stylist, “a work wife, in theory, is the emotional glue that holds your professional existence together”. Over the years, the perception of a work wife has shifted from what was formerly understood as an intimate (often questionable) relationship to a more wholesome friendship and support system between two people. So much so, that last year, Erica Ceruo and Claire Mazur, published a book titled, Work Wife: The Power of Female Friendship To Drive Successful Businesses which described a “feminist reimagining of the workplace” through the power of the work wife relationship.
As a Black woman, my understanding of a work wife is slightly different: it’s the first person you think of when you want to vent about the unique pressures you face as a minority, without having to explain all the nuances, because they “get it”. It is an open problem that my industry – journalism – is very white and very male. Having a work wife from a similar background allows me to feel more comfortable in that space. But women of colour working in the tech world, education and in the healthcare profession tell me this is a similar phenomenon across industries.
Hannah Ajala, a journalist and founder of the support network We Are Black Journos, says that “having a work wife has been everything”. For Ajala, it’s made her work life resemble some of what her life outside of work looks like: “It’s made my role not easier – but relatable – knowing I’m not the only one and can offload to someone trustworthy.” Guardian US journalist Poppy Noor echoes this when she tells me about the all too familiar experience of being mistaken for an intern or being told “how articulate you are (‘for a brown person’ being implied)”.
“Having a work wife is this incredible weight off your chest because you basically don’t feel mad anymore,” Noor adds.
“I would probably go mad without my work wife,” says Amel Mukhtar, a features assistant at British Vogue. “With the micro-aggressions and misunderstandings that every Black person inevitably experiences in any British workplace, it’s so good to speak to someone who just gets it, a sounding board that can help you navigate sometimes intimidating conversations and reassure you that you’re not crazy.”
In the tech sector, where women and minorities are massively underrepresented, Abi Mohamed felt “completely trapped” when she first began her tech career. In previous roles, she found herself being the only woman in an entire team. “The glass ceiling was just too difficult to get past,” Mohamed tells me, recalling how often she was passed up for promotions, and how she’d break down in tears in the bathroom twice a day.
After this experience, Mohamed was committed to finding her “tribe”, which she has now found in her current role. Her work wife gives her the space to vent and figure out next steps together. Abi tells me her wife is able to sense how she is feeling from a “huff”, often asking Abi if she wants to get fresh air on particularly difficult work days.
The women I spoke to told me having this support can positively impact your development at work. Miss Barwaqo, a secondary school teacher, recalls being consistently undermined, something she says is common for Black women to experience in the workplace (“white colleagues would mistake me for a sixth former or assume I am still a teacher in training”). Her work wife, a fellow teacher, “helped me reach a level of comfortability where I could work to the best of my ability and work hard to serve my students”. Primary school teacher, Laila is the only non-white teacher in her team. The closest she has to a work-wife is her class's current teaching assistant, an older Ghanaian woman, who lovingly calls her “my niece” and reminds her to drink water.
Similarly, fourth year medical student Yara is the only Black woman on her new hospital placement. While she’s since made friends on this placement, she is still anxious of being stereotyped during normal work discussions as the “angry black woman”. She misses the work wife she had on her course before she started placement: how instant and immediate their bond was as two Black and Muslim women. “We totally got each other, we came from the same background, class and culture,” she remembers.
The need for a work-wife transcends ward rounds or software development meetings: all the women I spoke to share the same sentiments and grievances of being undermined or facing micro-aggressions as women of colour. For the Black women specifically, office politics can feel far worse when you’re worried small issues may escalate out of control or become representative of your entire community. As co-author Yomi Adegoke puts it in her book Slay In Your Lane: “Blackness is rarely afforded the room for mistakes, the benefit of the doubt and the benevolence of a second chance.”
Complaining about long-work days and office politics is a valid reason for needing a work-wife, but when that’s coupled with the everyday, casual racism many Black women experience at work, a work-wife becomes a necessity for survival and sanity. Elaine Welteroth, former Editor-In-Chief of Teen Vogue and author of More Than Enough writes, “when you find yourself existing in the space between dreams realised, parts of you will feel too big for where you are, while other parts of you will feel too small for where you’re going”. By the time that I’m an EIC somewhere, I hope that I have a fuller confidence in myself. But if I have moments of doubt and fear, I know that my work-wives will be there.