Companies & Industries

"I'm Sort of Gender-Neutral In Here"


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. In this final edited excerpt, white women discuss discrimination at work:

A theme permeating the white women's narratives was that many entered Corporate America largely unprepared for the discrimination they would experience because of their gender. We believe the women's naivete may have helped them continue in spite of the obstacles they encountered when they entered their managerial careers. But at the same time we found most believed they had to work particularly hard to prove they were as good as the men in their companies.

Unlike the black women, who were more likely to point to social structural barriers and the need for institutional changes, the white women found more individualistic ways of understanding the barriers. A majority of the white women managers were reluctant to label the obstacles as discrimination. Sandra Martin shared a belief with other women who argued that what they were facing was not discrimination per se. "If I felt it, I'd say so. But I don't feel that way. I feel like I'm sort of gender-neutral in here." Said Marilyn Paul of her consumer products company: "I probably have been manipulated some because I've allowed myself to be manipulated. But I don't think that's discrimination. That's just a good tactic for somebody to use. I never really found being a woman an issue here."

"KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT." This resistance to the notion of discrimination shaped the way white women confronted the barriers they encountered. As Linda Butler told us, "I guess I just accepted that that's how it was, and it was up to me to change perceptions of women and what we could do." Linda has proven herself more than once, often by just demanding more of herself. The only woman at the senior level of a large utility company, she comments, "I don't want them to say, 'Look, a woman can't handle it -- that's what happens when you put her in a position of power."

Authors Ella Bell and Stella Nkomo

Even women who acknowledged discrimination in their companies were cautious in their responses. Gloria Goldberg reflected, "You learn to keep your mouth shut a little longer. You learn who to trust. Sometimes you're right and sometimes you're wrong. As you rise up through the company, you learn to use your power to overcome it." Marilyn Paul told us, "I give up a lot, sometimes. I don't argue about everything. I have more respect for hierarchy." Even when there was a blatant case of sex discrimination, white women muted their response. After the episode in which a senior male tied her hands to stop her from talking with them, Jean Hendrick told us, "I didn't yell, because he actually was the one making the mistake, and I wanted to protect him from it. That was really dumb."

A number of the most successful women in our group emphasized the significance of getting into jobs that are part of a career track to power. Maxine Schneider, for example, understood that her company was sales-driven. Her success as a divisional sales manager ensured her rise in the ranks. Now director of public affairs for a Fortune 100 communications company, Maxine has earned credibility at her company because of her success in sales.

TWO POSTURES. Building credibility was a critical accomplishment cited over and over by the women we talked to. "You have to produce," Sandra Martin said. "They don't care how you do it, as long as you deliver the goods." She added, "When you grow with a company you learn this: In the long haul, what matters is excellent work, developing good relationships and credibility with people everywhere you go in your company. Once you develop credibility, when you help them, they help you."

We found that the white women managers in our study exhibited two postures that were not shared by black women managers. Some saw discriminatory barriers for women but were reluctant to speak out. They accepted discrimination as part of the organizational culture. Others believed their companies allowed them to be gender-neutral. For this group, individual achievement was proof that gender was not a problem.

The price of membership in executive careers extracts a high price for black women and white women, albeit in different ways. [Sociologist] Aida Hurtado asserts that black and white women experience exclusion differently because of their relative positions to white men. Black women believe rejection is the state of affairs and they refuse to shed their identities to fit in. Day-to-day interactions in their organizations often reinforce their beliefs.

White women believe they can gain access and try to fit in. Yet, in the end, white women managers still must contend with gender discrimination, which usually takes the form of overprotection, subordination, and sexualization. This is a point not lost on some of the white women we interviewed. As Jean Hendrick reluctantly admitted, "I normally don't think this way. But it's occurred to me, finally, out of all my naivete -- which has served me very well when you think of it -- that the fact that I am a woman, in the end, will have held me back."

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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