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Increasing the Number of Black Women in the Boardroom Starts in the Classroom

Written By Nile Harris


Written By Nile Harris

Imagine ticking off all of your goals for the year. You have a robust professional development plan and you took on extra work. All indicators point to a praise-worthy review and a potential promotion. Carefully, you craft your self-assessment, citing examples of your work, results, and progress while highlighting areas of growth. Then, the unexpected happens. You are told in your annual review that you are not meeting expectations. Despite your successes, your manager does not acknowledge your hard work. In fact, he/she claims that they have yet to see what you can do. Further, they label you as aggressive, too difficult to work with, or some other nondescript term too vague to define, but that will be acceptable to HR without concrete evidence.

While women seem to be making progress towards cracking the glass ceiling, black women lag behind white women in pay, promotions, and leadership positions despite having the same education and qualifications. This topic even trended on Twitter as #BlackWomenAtWork. According to the 2015 Center for Talent Innovation report, “Black Women Ready to Lead”, black women are 2.8 times more likely than white women to have aspirations of occupying powerful positions. There is no evidence to suggest black women lack education, skill or ambition. However, there does seem to be a connection between how black women are labeled and their lack of ascension up the corporate ladder. How is it that the negative perception of black women is so powerful and pervasive?

Schools and their Contributions to the Narrative

The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequity released research revealing that adults view black girls, particularly ages 5–14, as less innocent and more “grown” than their white peers. Furthermore, and far more disturbing, Georgetown’s report revealed that the common perception is that young black girls are more knowledgeable about sex. Ultimately, this leads to the idea that they require less nurturing, protection, and support.
It comes as no surprise, then, that black girls receive suspension six times more than their white peers. The book “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” highlights the fact that black girls receive harsher punishments for the same behavior as their classmates. Many schools use dress codes as a way to restrict black girls from wearing their hair natural. Young black girls also reported feelings of exclusion by not being allowed to ask questions, explore concepts, and voice a dissenting opinion. The U.S. Department of Education’s data shows that during the 2009–10 school year black girls were 17% of female students yet accounted for 43% of those with a school-related arrest. Once in the legal system, they endured harsher punishments than any other demographic.

Because this backlash happens in full view of others, it makes sense that our future leaders, and their parents, will be influenced by what they see in schools. It appears that our society has bought into the narrative that black girls are aggressive, hyper-sexualized, and more “grown” than young white girls. Add to the mix media and music’s reinforcement of these stereotypes, and you have the foundation for an implicit bias that is carried out of schools and into the workplace and personal relationships.

And Yet, We Persist

Amazingly, despite the barriers to educational equity, black women continue to outpace women of other races in the attainment of college degrees. In the 2013–14 school year, 66% and 60% of associates and bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans went to women (National Center for Education Statistics).

The experiences of black women in the workplace mirrors that of the classroom. They often report a sense of being held to a higher standard, a deeper level of scrutiny, and judged more harshly than their white colleagues for similar mistakes. They also feel undervalued and overlooked. Similar to schools, dress code policies exist as a way to discourage black women from wearing their hair natural. Though not discussed often, black women can feel sexually objectified by their white male managers and counterparts — perhaps a remnant of being perceived as “grown” and sexually knowledgeable at the age of 12.

Are black women too sensitive? In September 2012, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published an article called “Failure is Not an Option for Black Women” (Rosette, Ashleigh Shelby, Livingston, Robert W., 1162–1167). The experiment instructed 228 participants to read fictitious articles that modified only the race and gender of the leader. Their findings revealed black women receive harsher judgment than their white counterparts for failure. However, when the organization achieved success, all leaders were perceived the same. Based on the results of this experiment, it is easy to come to the conclusion that black women do indeed face an unjust level of scrutiny.

The Push for More Women in Leadership is Not Enough

At a time when women are unifying in the fight for equal pay and health rights, black women are often missing from the conversation. Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, a psychology professor at Columbia University, suggests people are biased to ignore black women. When they hear the term “black executive,” they think black male and for “female executive,” they think white woman (“Why So Few Black Women are Senior Managers in 2015”, 2015, April 22, Fortune.com).

Generally speaking from my experience and that of others, white women can unknowingly be a part of anti-blackness when the stigma of the “angry black woman” meets the false narrative of “white female fragility”. When there is a conflict, the closer the white female is to the mainstream (thin, blond hair, blue eyes) and the further away the black woman is (natural hair, dark complexion, curvy), the harsher the punishment and scrutiny for the black woman. Though the women can work through the conflict on their own, white observers will admonish the black woman as the aggressor. But because black girls (now women) are thought to need less support and nurturing, white observers, even if the white woman was the aggressor, tell the black woman to assume good intent or to manage her reaction (i.e., blackness) better to protect the feelings of the white woman. This runs parallel to black girls who are a small portion of the student population yet account for nearly half of the school-related arrests.

We Must Work the Problem from Both Ends

The parallels presented here suggests that if we want to shift the perception of black women, the classroom is a good place to start. But the solution must simultaneously include a remedy for adult black women already facing inequality in the workplace. First, academic curriculum needs to be more inclusive, showing the successes of minorities, rather than just telling stories of their suffering (which are minimized anyway). Black girls and women were more than slaves who were raped; they were abolitionists, business owners, writers, etc.! Second, schools must do the work to analyze their disciplinary tactics. Educational institutions must correct gaps and be accountable to the state and other direct oversight bodies. Further, if a disparity doesn’t exist, schools should take time to document what is going well and share it, so that the example can be followed.

And lastly, diversity initiatives in the workplace often wrongly focus on teaching tolerance or increasing numbers. The majority of the managers are likely unaware of their bias or how it impacts the team. In 2014 David R. Hekman, Maw-Der Foo and Wei Yang of the University of Colorado set out to answer an interesting question: if women and minorities outnumber white males, why are white males still in control of most organizations? They found that in workplaces where diversity was not valued, women or minorities who advocated for women or minority job candidates were perceived less favorably. Another conclusion they came to is that white males are perceived as a necessity to creating a more equitable and inclusive environment, (“Women and Minorities Penalized for Promoting Diversity, Study Says”, Shin, Laura. 2014, July 29. Forbes.com).

Organizations should concentrate on identifying and overcoming sources of implicit bias by holding managers accountable for developing and advancing their entire staff. One way to accomplish this is by monitoring recruitment and retention statistics, giving mandatory 360 reviews to all managers, and tracking the career progression of staff. But don’t merely track the numbers, act on the disparities. Data without action is meaningless.


Nile Harris is the creator of the New Black Chick, a blog focused on wealth and wellness for black women. She is an aspiring motivational speaker and author with over 2o years of experience in healthcare, finance, and education. Her mission is to unapologetically improve the narrative for and about black women. Living is her love letter to life. Twitter: @thenileharris, @TheNewBlackChick; IG: @newblackchick

Originally published at medium.com

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