Are Black Women Standing In Each Other’s Way When It Comes To Career Advancement?
Admittedly the last two years of my professional career have been frustrating as I find myself somewhat stagnant in the world of non-profits. I’ve been at two organizations led by women and that have quite a number of women in power positions. As inspirational and promising as that may seem, in these past six years I’ve often felt that after navigating environments that are filled with personal feelings, egos, mismanagement and entitlement, any progress I have managed to make has seemed to always hit a ceiling.
No matter how much I’ve tried to bring new ideas to table, go above and beyond my position and be a team player, I’ve run into several scenarios where it seems that managers withhold information that it pertinent for their staff to grow. I’ve even seen managers feelings change towards me when after they’ve shared often way too much information about their personal struggles, challenges with dating and hurdles in motherhood. When I share that for the most part I feel very lucky to have a supportive partner and a strong support system of family and friends, it’s often then that the shade comes and the message is sent that as a black woman, no one can have it all and some people will go out of their way to make sure that you never do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying my sistas are all out her sabotaging their personal lives so they can win professionally. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times I felt pressured to dim my shine so someone else can feel better about their struggle. Also, all too often I’ve witnessed that the more satisfied women have seemed in their personal lives, the more they’ve been willing to help others grow professionally.
“It’s because you got too many black, bitter ass supervisors. Women that inherited jobs, instead of earning them or ‘key-key-keed’ their way to the top,” friends have remarked while we all vented about our woes at happy hour. And while stereotypical statements like these aren’t always true, I’d have to say I’ve noticed a pattern of me approaching managers with questions that they repeatedly can’t answer. When requests are made for creativity, leadership and guidance to get the gears of a team turning, many of the women I’ve witnessed in power (many, but not all) have little to offer, waiting for their team to put in hours and energy coming up with the next great idea only to pick it apart one condescending comment at a time, although they had nothing to offer initially. I’ve found myself turning to an imaginary audience way too many times during the work day to ask, “How in the entire f**k did she get this job?”
I don’t think black women are obligated to help their counterparts climb the ranks of success, however, who better to understand the struggle of a woman of color than another woman of color. But I get it: Life is busy and messy and short and it can be challenging to offer a hand to help someone else up when you’ve barely got a grip on the rungs of the career ladder yourself. But I can’t help but suspect that there are so many women affected by the, “There Can Only Be One” mentality which makes them hesitant to offer help out of fear that the spot they’re helping another woman advance to is their own.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal is exploring just exactly why women of color struggle to make it to top positions. According to Alina Dizik’s “Women Of Color Have High Ambition, But Little Help”, the numbers don’t lie. When it comes to mentoring and helping staff grow in their careers, Jason the CFO is more likely to invite Matt, the entry-lever finance guy to discuss leadership and new ideas over drinks, while Nicole, VP of HR is less likely to do the same for her entry level assistant who is clearly eager to learn. A new study from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey and Co. surveyed 70,000 women and men in North America to explore gender inequality in the workplace. The survey found black women are most likely to say they don’t have interactions with top bosses, and only 23% say managers help them navigate organizational politics, compared with 36% of white women.
The study also showed that when it comes to career plans, women of color are far more likely than white women to say they have aspirations to snag the title of CEO, CFO or other C-Suite positions. However, African-American, Latina and Asian women only hold 3% of C-Suite positions compared with 16.7% of entry-level roles. But if it isn’t the mentality that black women view each other more as competition than allies in their careers, what else could possibly be sending the message to so many woman of color that C-Suite positions are out of their reach? Why are so many women hitting the glass ceiling before they barely get out of the basement? John Rice, founder of Management Leadership for Tomorrow states that beyond race one of the biggest reasons are blind spots at the management level which don’t allow managers to see that there is no one set path to success that works for all employees. For example, many black women don’t have the same informal networks as their white male counterparts do. It’s like I once told my husband who is a business owner himself, “It’s a lot easier to look at entrepreneurial ship as a legitimate means to making a living when you’re surrounded by people who have been there and done it.” If you’re surrounded by 9-5er’s, working for yourself may not appear as tangible. Does that mean it can’t be done? No. Does it mean it’s going to be harder for someone to nail working for themselves as opposed to someone who is surrounded by nothing but successful entrepreneurs? Probably.
While those who have found success climbing the corporate ladder shouldn’t feel as if they have to come out of their office and literally pull initiative and ambition from the souls of their subordinate staff members, it can only help an organization grow as whole when managers are approachable and make themselves available to bring out the best in their employees. It also helps to consider that just because a professional may not know how to navigate what can sometimes be the rocky waters of office politics, doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to get in the boat and grip an oar. Alissa Johnson, a senior female executive for Xerox and a mentor for women of color shares that when it comes to advice, she tells her mentees they have to step out of their comfort zones. When it come to the idea of women helping each other climb the career ladder, she shares:
“Everyone wants one person to break in and bring the rest of us along.”
Unfortunately, that rarely happens, but Rice says those in power have a duty to share the steps to higher positions by doing more than doling out generic advice like, “Work hard,” and “Take initiative.” He says there needs to be more transparency and the field needs to be leveled through day-to-day coaching that can be accessed regularly as opposed to formal mentorships:
“They can make what we would call the ‘high-performance-bar playbook’ much more transparent.”
I really don’t consider myself to be in any kind of position of professional power at this point in my career, but I do remember when I was a young, eager writer fresh out of college with little faith that I could actually use my English degree to make a living, I followed black writers on Twitter, retweeted, asked questions. I wrote editors and expressed my appreciation for the spaces that blogs were creating for black women to tell their stories. In that process I came across many women who looked out and sent opportunities to be featured in the New York Times Op-Ed section or asked me to be a regular contributor for those sites. Much of what I learned and accomplished wasn’t because I was out here crashing anyone’s professional party or breaking down barriers by myself. It was because other women who were higher on the ladder reached down and gave me their hands to hold. I’d like to think it was because they believed that individually we may be all pretty damn dangerous, but together, we’re a force to be reckoned with.
Now whether it’s a networking event, a writing opportunity, a resume review or even just some good advice on improving work ethic, I don’t ever want another woman to feel like there can only be one of us winning at a time. I also don’t want to ever forget that we all come from diverse backgrounds that determine what we have and don’t have access to and the truth is success is just as much about the hand you’ve been dealt, good or bad, and there is no one and there is no single “How-To” guide that will work for us all. When it comes to sprinkling black girl magic, we have to give one another something to believe in and sometimes that requires putting down the wand long enough to share the wisdom.
Have you faced any barriers regarding black women in power positions offering support to their colleagues?
Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.