#TeamUp: Black women leaders find that “to be equal, you have to be superior”
How often are you the only person of your gender or race in a professional setting? Do you even notice? Have you ever asked yourself this question?
In this season of recognizing social and racial injustices, the question is relevant. And there’s lots of data on the subject.
Truth be told, in my careers in journalism and business, in my decades of experience in nonprofit work and education, I have often been the “only.” When I was a copy kid at The Christian Science Monitor almost a half-century ago, I was an “only.” And I barely noticed.
It is only now, as I call up a sepia-toned mental image of my Monitor posse and bosses, that I notice they were all white and male, among them the publisher and his son. They were my friends. Many of them continued working at the Monitor. But I had other ambitions and was able to fulfill them.
I became an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist with CBS News. I traveled the world, reporting on Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. When I moved to New York City, I described my CBS beat as “mayhem and the arts.” I covered major criminal trials and business news for “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather” as well as a series of French Impressionism and 20th-century African American art exhibits for “CBS Sunday Morning.”
I lost touch with my friends who built their careers at the Monitor. Relentlessly, perhaps blindly, I pursued my own goals of success and achievement.
And now, I have come home to the Monitor to begin a new role as a columnist, somewhat more observant than I was as a copy kid.
A toxic standard
My first conscious memory is of my father saying, “When you’re Black in America, to be equal, you have to be superior.” Yes, that standard is impossibly, needlessly high. But I didn’t resent my father’s insistent message. I said to myself, “Is that all it takes?” The world’s standard is, and was, just a passing grade. When you’re a child, school is your job. What else was more important than working a little harder to get superior grades?
And my grades were superior! That empirical data gave me confidence. And that confidence propelled me, sustained me, in all of the rooms in which I was — and even today, at times, remain — an “only.”
Why does the standard have to be so high? It doesn’t. But that standard — and the racial bias implicit in it — can be toxic. Both demand a response.
Securing a seat at the table
For our newly published book, “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive,” my co-author, Bonita C. Stewart, and I conducted a survey of 4,005 female American “desk workers.” As far as we know, our Women of Color in Business: Cross Generational Survey is the first to look at four races (Black, Latina, Asian, and white) and four generations (boomers, Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z).
We found that 47% of Black women – almost half — said they are frequently or always the only person of their race in professional situations. By contrast, 73% of white women said they are rarely the only person of their race in such a setting.
We also found that 31% of Black women said their job applications are viewed more skeptically. The number is almost twice that reported by white women (17%). A recent McKinsey & Co. survey of racial equity in financial services confirmed the finding, even beyond the financial industry: “Black job applicants with degrees from elite universities experience the same résumé response rate as white applicants with degrees from state colleges.”
“We are the miraculous”
Once Black women cross the application hurdle and are hired, their “only-ness” comes with built-in stressors. We found that twice as many Black women as white said their work is viewed skeptically (35% of Black women, 23% Latina, 17% Asian, 16% white). And a number of surveys have found that women of color face more microaggressions than white women. Their judgment is questioned in the workplace, and even senior women are mistaken for support staff.
And yet, Black women are indomitable — even in the face of scrutiny, stress, and aggressions, both micro and macro. Harvard Business Review research has quantified our unbridled ambition with the finding that women of color are three times more likely to aspire to a position of power with a prestigious title than white women. Ironically, white women are about twice as likely to attain that position of power.
What’s the answer? Women of color can and are “teaming up.” And you can join us. As an example, Black, Latina, and Asian American alumnae at Harvard Business School have held their first joint “sisterhood circles,” providing inspiration, psychological support, and concrete advice for individuals facing specific challenges. As poet Maya Angelou wrote, “We are the miraculous.”
This story originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.