White Lies

This article originally appeared in the January.February 2008 issue of PINK magazine.This article won a national Folio Award for Best Editorial

Are white women doing their part to support their black sisters in the fight for gender parity in corporate America?

When Kimberly Davis began her career in investment banking in the ’80s, she noticed her employer was recruiting more African-American women and men from undergraduate and MBA schools nationwide. But she also saw a lot of black women leave because they weren’t promoted. “These women would appear to have all the attributes necessary for success, and yet they were dropping off at a much more rapid rate than men,” says Davis, who at the time was senior vice president and director of recruiting, training and development for Chase Manhattan’s Global Banking Division. A quick breakdown by race showed that advancement of white women at the company generally topped out at the vice presidential level. “They were facing barriers to moving into the C-suite,” Davis says. “The ceiling for black women was at a clerical level.”

Davis, who took a sabbatical in 2003 and co-founded a leadership center for women of color at Spelman College, looked at the demographics at other companies she saw the picture was the same.

Across the board, breakthroughs in women’s advancement to the higher echelons of business are largely benefiting whites, while the ascension of minorities is most significant among black men, even though companies are hiring more black women. African-American women are, in effect, trapped in the middle – not fully embraced by either gender movement or the ethnic movement. “The intersection of race and gender appears to be a far more lethal combination for black women than for other persons of color,” says Davis, currently senior vice president for global philanthropy for JPMorgan Chase and president of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. 

The gleaming towers of corporate America may not reflect the blatant and bold racism of the kind that still stings in the nation’s memory – that of racial epithets scrawled on lockers or muttered in hallways, of segregated restrooms and water fountains – but there’s an enduring struggle nonetheless, unspoken and insidious. Between minorities and whites in big business, where unconscious bias and misunderstanding continue to make it harder for women of color to climb the ladder. At the forefront are not only the stereotypical white male CEOs and senior executives who despite best intentions and company diversity initiatives and rhetoric still inhabit a white male world. No, surprisingly, there’s a tacit competition that pits white women against black women, whose battles are not one and the same even though both groups are fighting for gender parity.

One look at the statistics and the question emerges: Why haven’t black women made the same strides as white women if the issue is purely gender?

The harsh reality is that white women are afforded many of the same privileges as white males by being part of the majority class in the corporate arena, say high-ranking women of color. And many white women are shirking their responsibility as sisters in the gender movement. “White women need to remember to honor the covenant between all women,” says Sandra Finley, president and CEO of The League of Black Women. “They need to stop saying, ‘That could happen to anybody.’ The reality is that what happens to black women is different. Our experiences are unique.”

Michelle Johnson, director of supplier diversity for The Home Depot, agrees that white women, just as much as white men, are often in denial of race as a significant deciding factor at work. “White women don’t have parity with white men, but they’re a rung above women of color on the ladder,” she says. “White men in corporate America look at white women and see their wives, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, nieces, granddaughters.” In contrast, she says, many of the same men still see women of color as clerks. And even some white women secretly view black women as their support – “the hired help” – not equal partners striving for common ground with the men.

2008 or 1958?

If you think the struggle and strife of the civil rights movement are past, think again. Race-based discrimination charges made up more than a third of all cases filed in 2006 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Com mission. In fact, allegations of skin-color bias have increased by 232 percent over the last 15 years. The grievances and complaints remain the same: minorities passed over for promotions, stuck in dead-end lower positions and placed as managers over mostly minority-filled departments.

Some of America’s biggest and best-known corporations – in some circles widely praised as having a good record on minority hiring and promotion – have also faced major discrimination lawsuits: Texaco, Coca-Cola, Boeing, Morgan Stanley, Lockheed Martin, Nike and Toyota among them. In most cases the company settles quickly out of court, though it denies wrongdoing – so catastrophic is the stigma of racism in today’s public eye. But racism has also become harder to prove – even to see – since it moved from spray-painted graffiti on the wall to a gilded prejudice pushed deeper into the American consciousness.

But that prejudice is still there. Sandra Finley has seen it firsthand, as when she was mistaken for a parking attendant or assumed to be a guest at the professional club where she’s a member. She says more of such embarrassments happen to African-American women due to racial bias than to gender bias, a fact that white women need to know. “It’s the two-punch double whammy,” she says. 

Loretta Walker, senior vice president of human resources for Turner Broadcasting System Inc., also sees cultural stereotypes seep into the conference room. For instance, she says whites often perceive black women who are animated and passionate as too aggressive – a perception of which black women are all too aware. The result? Some African-American women are afraid to show enthusiasm in a meeting out of fear that colleagues will picture them as a rap star. “Some women of color will not voice their point of view because they’re so busy trying not to come off that way,” she says. And that alone can have a chilling effect on career opportunities.

Even when women of color band together, ignorance and resistance – though seemingly innocuous – can reveal just how divided the workplace remains. When Bentina C. Terry, vice president of external affairs and corporate services at Gulf Power, filled her previous post with an African-American woman she mentors, a white male colleague wondered how others might perceive the decision. “He said, ‘People are going to think that role can only be filled by an African-American woman.’ I said, ‘Who preceded you in your job? A white guy. So is your job only a white guy’s job?'” She adds, “If I were a white guy, no one would even notice or have the nerve to say something to me.”

Probably the same, too, were she a white woman. Across the corporate landscape, nearly 80 percent of respondents to a League of Black Women survey think people’s attitudes about race diminish their ability to be effective leaders. A 2005 Catalyst study of women corporate officers in the Top 500 showed that African-American women, more so than their white female counterparts, report heightened scrutiny from co- workers and a questioning of their authority and credibility. They also cite a lack of high-visibility assignments and a shortage of role models – both areas where white women have made advances.

It follows that white men and women are six times more likely to be on corporate boards than men and women of color, says Candice Morgan, a senior associate and member of the Women of Color Issue Specialty Team at Catalyst. Negative cultural and race-based stereotypes are persistent barriers that cause black women to be overlooked for top positions, regardless of their credentials, she says.

Even there at the lower levels, Davis believes racism is a major barrier for black women, who are still fighting with white men and women “who won’t let black women move out of the basement.”

No Easy Answers

Diversity policies, corporate hype and training sessions may change the way people act – or think they act – but can they change the way people really feel? If white women at the office, deep down, continue to feel more comfortable around white women, and black women around black women, will they ever be able to advance together as one gender? These are the difficult questions surrounding a deeply disguised and suppressed racial divide, a festering problem with no easy answers.

One thing that is certain is the equal responsibility for action, women on both sides say. Finley and others believe companies must move beyond “diversity speak” to develop training that helps black women at all levels confront negative stereotypes. Terry adds that senior-level African-American women can’t be afraid to be an advocate for other black women who have talent and potential.

Ramon Harris, director of the Technology Transfer Project at the Executive Leadership Foundation, says African-American women whose careers have moved the furthest have had two critical components: the skills needed to drive shareholder value, and someone who took notice of her performance and helped her move from point A to point B. Change, say many women of color, will occur when white women take a stand to steward the next generation of African-American women executives – a collaboration that requires both sets of women to step well outside of their comfort zones.

“It’s about white men and women building relationships with black women on a personal level, where they’re invested in their success,” Davis says. “White men and women need to understand that to change demographics in their companies, they need to own that. It’s not good enough to say, ‘I’m here and I’m available.'”

“African-American women have to speak up and not be afraid,” adds Lillian Dukes, vice president of technical services for American Eagle Airlines. “We have to be receptive to what each other is saying – even if it may not be pretty.” 

The challenge for black women is to bring their perspectives to the table unabashedly and mesh them with those of others, says Walker, who describes her own responsibility “to educate those who don’t look like me, so they understand where I’m coming from.” She’s developed just such a relationship with her (white) mentor, Kelly Regal, executive vice president at TBS, Inc. Walker says Regal did a great job of coaching her when she first joined the company eight years ago and has continued to support her career, whether by giving her certain assignments or enabling her to participate in industry events. Regal, for her part, believes the responsibility of cross cultural sponsorship comes at every level.  “It’s an important duty of all leaders to grow talent and provide coaching to bring those in the pipeline up to the next level,” she says.

An honest dialogue between white and black women may not always be rosy, as Dukes suggests, but only by discus sing and reshaping women’s deeply seated notions about one another can women of all races move forward. “This is not recrimination,” Finley says, “but an opportunity for us all.”

By Carolyn M. Brown

What We Can Do?

Diversity and inclusion start with me, and they start with you. Here are just a few steps we can take as individuals so white women and women of color can promote dignity, equality and inclusion at work – and finally advance together.

5 Actions White Women can take:

1. Inclusion requires interaction and connection. Tolerance does not. Go out of your way to be a mentor for a woman of color.

2. Where there is none and if it is needed, develop and sponsor a resource group for women of color.

3. Attend an event outside of your community in an ethnic neighborhood with a woman of color from work. Also invite her to dinner and get to know her needs and struggles.

4. Be the voice of those not in the room; challenge the status quo. Stand up to those who make negative or stereotypical comments about women of color.

5. Remember we are all women – not part of the good ol’ boys network.

5 Actions Women of Color can take:

1. Challenge yourself to get to know a variety of female friends at work – including white women. Seek a white woman as a mentor.

2. Never assume white women are all alike; they, too, are unique individuals.

3. Gain an understanding of why we need each other to survive

4. Attend an event outside of your community with a white woman from work or a woman of color other than your ethnic group. Invite her to dinner and get to know her needs and struggles. Be a diversity champion who continues to learn things about yourself and others who are different.

5. Remember we are all learning, and we often don’t know what we don’t know.

By Denise Beckles

Denise Beckles is a freelance writer and diversity strategist. She is also a diversity education manager at Johnson & Johnson. The opinions expressed are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policies of J&J.

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