Companies & Industries

A Tale of Two Women


In Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity, co-authors Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell and Stella M. Nkomo compare the career paths of black and white women in Corporate America. This edited excerpt examines how two women -- one black, one white -- became managers:

Forty percent of the African-American women and 30 percent of the white women in our study took direct paths to their managerial careers, beginning their trek toward a managerial career early in their adult lives. Critical turning points in their careers were a result not of happenstance but of calculated strategy. Patricia Triggs and Marilyn Paul typify the women who followed direct paths.

Patricia Triggs embarked upon a management career like an arrow on its way to a bull's-eye. She set her sights on being a marketing executive during her freshman year in high school. Patricia had a vision for her life: "I saw myself being independent, having my own apartment, managing myself, doing what I wanted to when I wanted to because I wanted to do it." During her senior year in college, she signed up early for campus interviews because she wanted to be certain she had a job in marketing by the time she graduated.

"THE PITS." Patricia landed a job on the bottom rung in marketing at a Fortune 500 consumer products company. She progressed quickly on a career path designed to lead from an assistant to a managerial post in the company. But living as a single African-American woman in a Midwest city was, in Patricia's words, "the pits." After weighing her options, she decided to pursue a different strategy, one she had observed being use by "the smarter white men in her company." She decided to pursue a job in consulting that would enable her to sharpen her analytical skills. Patricia believed the synergy between her consulting skills and her marketing experience would catapult her onto a faster management track.

There was one problem: she needed an MBA to work in consulting in the 1970s. So she applied to and was accepted into an MBA program in an urban city. Early in her MBA program, she began attending career fairs, targeting the consulting firms she had previously identified. "My strategy was to get an internship during that first summer and then be invited back into a full-time position."

Her strategy worked perfectly. With an MBA degree in hand, she joined one of the most prominent consulting companies in the country as a full-time associate -- the only black woman associate in the company. She intended to stay there long enough to sharpen her analytical skills. After a tumultuous and trying tenure at the firm, Patricia left to take a position as a marketing manager in another large consumer products company, exactly as she had set out to do.

Authors Ella Bell and Stella Nkomo

WORK FIRST. Marilyn Paul grew up very much aware of her father's career as a corporate executive. Her father had an Ivy League MBA and she wanted to have one herself. Her interest in business had been confirmed by a great experience selling ads for her college newspaper. She liked both selling and talking with businessmen. "I still marvel that I knocked on a fifty-year-old businessman's door and got him to buy an ad from me." So when she graduated from college she decided to work in business first and acquire hands-on experience before going to graduate school.

But Marilyn did not want to go to New York and be a banker like everybody else. "I found it just stulifying," she said, "and not very challenging." A college friend suggested Marilyn contact her father, who was a corporate executive with a national retailer. Marilyn did well in her job interview with the company and was hired as an assistant buyer. In only a year, Marilyn was promoted to sales manager. But the position was not "intellectual enough" for Marilyn, so she decided to return to school for her MBA sooner than planned.

After graduating at the top of her business school class, she did not return to retailing. "It's an interesting business, but it takes a while to get to a point where you use your mind." Instead, she interviewed with consumer marketing companies and took a job as an assistant product manager in the marketing division of a Fortune 100 company. Her early career progressed like clockwork. A year and a half after joining the company, she moved up to associate product manager; a year and a half after that, she was named product manager for a major food product.

SLOWER PROGRESS. The major difference we found between black and white women who took a direct path was in the number of years it took them to advance from an entry-level position to their first management position. On average it took white women 2.1 years to be promoted to management; for African-American women it took 3.6 years. The different time frame for achieving a management position may help to explain why the white women in this study had progressed farther than African-American women in the managerial hierarchy. Of the women we interviewed, 45 percent of the white women were in upper-level management positions, compared to 19 percent of the African-American women. Previous research has shown that even small differences in upward mobility at the early stage of a managerial career can have a heavy impact on the later stages.

This relatively slower pace reflects, we believe, the different obstacles the women encountered as they entered corporations. As Cynthia Cockburn points out in her book on sex equality in organizations: "Despite social legislation for equal opportunity for women and racial minorities, white men were not about to let down the drawbridge on their castles." But this was just one of the challenges women confronted in the early stages of their careers.

Excerpted from the book Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity, Copyright 2001 by Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell and Stella M. Nkomo. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Available online at www.hbsp.harvard.edu or by calling 800 988-0886. All rights reserved.


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