No one questions that women of all races and ethnic backgrounds have made inroads in Corporate America over the past few decades. But do they share a common strategy for climbing up the executive ladder? In their new book, Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity (Harvard Business School Press, August, 2001), co-authors Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell and Stella M. Nkomo compare and contrast the career paths of black and white women executives in American business. Their findings are based on an eight-year research project that included 120 in-depth interviews and a national survey of black and white female managers, many holding senior positions at top U.S. companies. (For obvious reasons, all participants were granted anonymity.)
Bell and Nkomo studied the intersection between race and gender to determine how black women differ from their white counterparts when it comes to advancing their careers. They offer an unflinching look at racism and share painful firsthand accounts from black female professionals about the times they encountered discrimination and isolation in the workplace. As one black women executive bluntly puts it to Bell and Nkomo: "I feel like a guest in somebody's house."
Bell, visiting professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, and Nkomo, professor at the University of South Africa's Graduate School of Business Leadership, don't shirk from taking on taboo subjects that might make some readers squirm. They write candidly about the racial stereotypes black and white women have of each other and how white women often align themselves more closely with their male colleagues rather than with the black females in their organizations. Recently, BusinessWeek Online reporter Jennifer Gill spoke with Bell and Nkomo about, among other things, how their own experiences as black professionals parallel the stories of the women in their book. Here are edited excerpts of that conversation:
Q: What did you learn about the ways that black and white women advance their careers? In what ways were they different?
Stella Nkomo: Black women had [to deal with] the whole issue of racism with the sexism. We called it the concrete wall. They didn't talk about overcoming the concrete wall. They talked about chipping away at it. One of the biggest issues they faced was just establishing their legitimacy and their authority to be managers. They were not ever seen in those roles. Women, and black women in particular, had been seen more in subservient roles or working in more traditional fields, like teaching school.
Frankly, one of the biggest differences between black women and white women, which some people may find unsettling, is that black women didn't feel that they had to submerge who they were in order to get ahead. So one of the things they did was learn how to be savvy about maintaining and asserting themselves in the organization.
The white women we talked to felt that they had to totally acquiesce, to give in and be like one of the boys in order to get ahead. They tried to suppress themselves as women to fit more with the male characteristics of being a successful manager. And the black women said, "You know, I'm a black woman. I want to maintain who I am. I will learn how to play this game in a different way." There's a very fine line, you know. If you go a little bit too full-steam, you're not going to be around for long. They had to be sassy, but refined.
Q: Can that sassiness go over the line?
Ella Bell: Over the line comes when the sassiness gets locked into the stereotype of being a Sapphire -- a black woman who carries a chip on her shoulder. [Other people see her] as always angry. They say things like: "She never smiles," or "She never hangs out with others."
[For black women,] part of that anger is true. They're not advancing, they're not getting support. They're marginalized. And once that marginalization sets in, they question themselves. But sometimes when we do that as black women, we get too defensive. The armor gets thicker. We go into self-protection mode. We're not as trusting, not as open. We circle the wagons.
Authors Ella Bell and Stella Nkomo
[But] colleagues don't see that as a self-protecting buffer. They see it as, "She doesn't want to be a part of the team." Being labeled as a non-team player is the kiss of death. To be labeled as angry when people are being laid off is the kiss of death. If anything, you're supposed to show, "Boy, I really want to be a part of this team, and I'm really glad to be here."
I think this puts managers, particularly white managers, in a stupor because they're afraid to give feedback. They're afraid that what they're going to say will be perceived as racist. They don't ask themselves: What's going on within the team, within our culture, that's causing this situation? As a consultant, I go into organizations, and my clients will tell me immediately, "You know, we've got a number of black women who seem to be very angry." My question is, "What's going on in your culture that has made them marginalized? They probably didn't come in with that mode."
Q: Other researchers, including David Thomas at Harvard, have found that it takes minorities significantly longer to reach middle management (for a Q&A with Thomas, see "They Go With John Jones, Caucasian Male"). What issues do black women encounter as they become managers?
Bell: There's more uncertainty about who a black woman is. When we asked white women about what they knew about black women, there were times when they couldn't even respond because they had never worked with a black woman in authority. They would cite a black man that they had worked with.
So for black women, it's having to be twice as good. We have a story in the book from a black woman executive who told us that her performance had to be sterling because she was in the spotlight. Her peformance had to be beyond what anyone would ever expect, in order for it to even be accepted as O.K.
We're seeing generational differences in this. Women who are in their forties and above, who've been in the corporate arena, they kind of know to expect this. The women who are younger believe that a lot of this has been dismantled. [They say:] "I'm trained. I've got my MBA from a top-tier school. I grew up in integrated areas. I come from a solid middle-class background." When this reality hits them, they don't know what to do with it because they haven't encountered it.
Q: Some black women in the book described the racism they encountered as "normal." Are we losing our senstivity to racial problems?
Nkomo: They saw [the racism], but because the [incidents] were so frequent, they came to expect it. It was also another way of protecting themselves. If they chose to respond to every single incident, they would have been worn out -- emotionally drained. It was just a choice on their part: "If I battle and scream and yell, I'm going to be drained. I won't be able to do my job. I will not keep my sanity. I will not keep my self esteem."
Q: In your survey of more than 800 black and white female managers, 90%
of black women reported conflicts with white women at work, while only 4% of white women said they had conflicts with their black counterparts. Why the huge disparity?
Bell: What we found was that there were many more black women who reported to white women than vice versa. And what we often hear from black women in companies is that the white woman is the new gatekeeper in deciding who moves up and who doesn't.
Black women have a tendency to be much more collective in their approaches. So when they go into a company, they will begin to network with other blacks in the company. They'll have lunch. There might be a black managers' association. They find ways of connecting and giving each other information.
White women tend to be highly individualistic. I've spent time doing many workshops with white women helping them to learn how to connect [to each other]. They come in with this kind of attitude, "I can't learn anything from this group. I want to be mentored by men."
When black women pick up on that, it doesn't allow them to build a relationship. They see white women trying to advance for themselves individually -- not for the sake of women or for minorities. [Black women and white women] come at it from a different value: One is collective, one is individualistic. That causes a lack of trust.
Q: Do white women managers mentor black women on their staffs?
Nkomo: When we talk to white women, many of them don't feel comfortable as a mentor to anybody until they are firmly anchored in their careers. And I think at other times, when they try to reach out to black women, they don't know how to. They often reach out in terms of, well, we're all women. They don't recognize that for the black woman the reality is different.
Bell: That's why we wrote the book. So often you hear that women all have the same experience. That's not true. Gender makes a big difference, but race makes a tremendous difference. I think that there might be Latino women and Asian women who will resonate with parts of this book as well.
Q: There was very little mention of corporate diversity programs in your book. Do these efforts matter?
Nkomo: The black women saw it as one more committee and one more big conversation that ended up as nothing. Diversity is a term that's trying to be polite. It hasn't really dealt with the issues that we talk about in our book, the sexism and the daily doses of racism. We asked black and white women, "What kinds of things does your company do to help you with your career?" Neither black women nor white women talked about corporate programs that made a difference to them.
Bell: Diversity means numbers to me. [It's about questions like:] What's the mix of the different numbers of people who represent race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, physical handicaps? Diversity is about creating the mix [but] it doesn't do very much to change the day-to-day behaviors and interactions among the mix of people who are in the company.
Nkomo: Too many diversity programs don't get at the cultures, as Ella said. They tend to come in and do a three-day training workshop, which doesn't change deep-rooted attitudes and values. And it doesn't change the fact that people are not familiar with one another. They haven't had the dialogue.
Q: As black women, what did you feel as you were doing this research?
Nkomo: Oh boy, lots of feelings. One was the privilege that I felt as a researcher to meet these women and talk with them. Each person's story was motivating. I think I also felt some anxiety because they were very candid and frank. These women, particularly the black women, were sharing some sensitive, controversial secrets about how they saw their companies, how they saw white women, how they saw each other.
My own story resonated so much with each woman's story. I was of the same generation, growing up as a black woman in the South Bronx and trying to establish a professional identity. Sometimes it was depressing to know that other people had experienced the same painful things. And other times it was exhilarating to know that they had also been able to achieve and keep a certain amount of sanity, which is easy to lose.
Bell: There were a lot of parallel experiences between their stories and mine. I was one of the first African-American faculty members at Yale's School of Organization & Management. I was the second or third black woman at MIT's Sloan School of Management. [The research allowed me] to tell myself that I wasn't crazy when one of my colleagues referred to me as a mammy. Or when I went to buy stamps at the mail room at Yale, and they told me that you couldn't walk in off the street to buy stamps. I said, "But I'm a faculty person here." And they said, "No, you're not."
I have a tendency to go to my classes early and sit in the classroom. Students, including at Dartmouth, inevitably come in and say, "Is Professor Bell here?" And I just smile and say, "Professor Bell will be here shortly." When it's time for class, I stand up and introduce myself. Their mouths all drop. It's like, "Whoa, wait a minute. You're not exactly what we thought we were going to get." There's an awkward moment, and then we go on and teach the class.
Anytime you sit down and ask somebody about their life, you're going to get an experience that tells you an awful lot about who you are, the relationships that you have with people, and the integrity that you bring to that process. It's all part and parcel of doing the work.