When I was younger I remember trying to separate female traits from black female traits. My purpose was not that to say there is no overlap. Of course there is. But I was fighting for my specific identity. I was fighting for Kellye Whitney’s right to exist, to work, to smile, laugh and be ambitious in a unique space separate from black Kellye Whitney. Black Kellye had to deal with a lot of foolishness.
I was trying to stop those annoying ass responses like “You go girl!” Or, “Okay, girlfriend!” whenever I did something at work that others associated with blackness. These phrases were often trilled at full volume, complete with accompanying facial expressions and body language. It was like walking around with a perpetual sign over my head that said “black girl.” FYI, if you use those phrases, especially to black coworkers, please cease and desist immediately. It’s dated, ridiculous and more often than not, it’s rude.
In the past, I did anything I could to avoid the black part of me because it can be a barrier, and I’m ambitious, always have been. I changed a lot about myself trying to fit into the mold I thought was most desirable for work. It worked, up to a point.
Now, I’m not sure I want to separate these two integral pieces of me. And for real? Who has the time? I’m black. I’m female, I’m Kellye. I’m a lot of things, and I’m not interested in parsing myself into sections to make it easier for others to understand me.
I run a business. I have family, friends, books to write, YouTube videos to make. And nowhere in there is it important for my success that I devote valuable resources to making other people comfortable. Frankly, I don’t get why that’s necessary anyway.
It’s 2017. It’s not unusual to see a Black woman like me. Is it? If you want to get to know me, it’s not hard. Just talk to me. Listen to me. Treat me like a human being. My humanity preempts my blackness, my femaleness, and even my name.
I say all this to begin a conversation about the lack of black females in leadership. Fortune ran a piece earlier this month, The Black Ceiling: Why African-American Women Aren’t Making It to the Top in Corporate America. It’s an interesting piece that begins with a dismal stat: Since Ursula Burns stepped down as CEO of Xerox in 2016, there are no black women running Fortune 500 companies.
According to the article, despite being the most educated demographic in America, black women aren’t repping the C-suite in corporate America much at all. Why? The article listed quite a few reasons, but these stuck out for me:
There’s a “black ceiling” as well as a glass ceiling. The black ceiling is comprised of multiple socioeconomic factors. For instance, black women are having a tough time closing the familiarity gap with white men, the people in positions of power. That whole double minority thing – being black and female – is a barrier to us having white men as mentors and sponsors. And we need them to teach us the ropes and open the doors we need to walk through to sit down at the table.
“There’s no natural place for these people to get together,” Burns said of potential sponsors and ambitious young black women. “These places have to be created. There is no natural pathway for connection; it’s not going to happen just walking down the hall.”
Office environments also cost black women a substantive emotional tax. You may remember my rather lengthy intro? Microaggressions are too often a regular part of the black woman’s work experience. It’s everything from constant questions about our appearance, to misunderstandings around cultural differences, to continually having our education and credentials questioned. Basically, race is always an issue, hovering in the background like a weird smell that casts a pall over our performance and compromises our executive presence even if we haven’t done anything wrong.
Then there are fraught relationships with white women to contend with. The kinship that should be there because “we’re both women” is missing because everybody’s trying to get to the top. If race is the only differentiator – that works – to give you a leg up, why not?
The article also pointed out that black women who ascend to leadership show up most often in support roles rather than the operational roles that lead to the CEO spot. Essentially, we’re working more in communications and HR than directly with the products, services and money. That’s true of women in general, but it’s even more apparent for black women.
We often don’t get as much constructive feedback as other groups do in the workplace. And if we do get feedback it’s lukewarm at best and often not terribly actionable because managers are afraid to be candid. They’re too busy trying to avoid the angry black woman response, whether that’s a real issue they’ve encountered, or something they’ve heard about on a sitcom or from a friend and have developed a fear of by osmosis.
It doesn’t help that everyone – regardless of race or gender – is afraid of being sued these days. I understand why managers are gun shy of confrontation, but some take it to the extreme, at black females’ expense. Managers are literally scared to say the “wrong” things and spark an emotional reaction. And without feedback, growth is tough. You don’t know what to fix, how to fix it, what to exploit or what to develop. Career advancement becomes this nebulous thing that you want but aren’t sure how to achieve.
But if your organization is serious about diversity and inclusion, these are the problems managers will have to tackle, now. This is not a problem that can be solved with a clever recruitment or retention strategy. It’s too wide spread for that. Internal development, change and talent management strategies are imperative.
And if my focus on black women is bugging you, the solutions I propose should ease your angst because they are actually holistic strategies that promote organizational inclusion, even as you become cognizant of the barriers that my specific demographic group suffers in the workplace.
Organizations must have a strong, defined, working position in favor of diversity and inclusion. It must be visible from the top down. Leaders can’t just say they believe in these things, they have to prove it – with data, policy and behavior.
- Is there a CDO with a direct ear to the CEO?
- Do leaders act as mentors and sponsors?
- Are there formal as well as informal programs to promote these activities?
- Is reverse mentoring an active thing?
- Are pairings mixed?
- Are people who participate in these programs being promoted?
- Do they stay in the organization?
- Are they encouraged/required to pay it forward?
- Are there targeted development programs to seed pipelines with diverse candidates that go beyond the typical, HR and marketing slots and dig into the P&L aspects of the business?
- What is the organization’s reputation on diversity and inclusion in the external marketplace?
- How are diversity- or gender-related incidents handled?
Managers have to get over their fear of feedback. If they don’t know how or they have trouble with this, teach them how. Don’t fall for that whole, “I don’t have time” business either. Feedback should be a daily, intrinsic part of the manager-employee relationship. Period. This isn’t just important to increase black female leadership bench strength. It’s critical to create an optimal workplace culture, one focused on continuous improvement, internal development and promoting from within.
And about that whole angry black woman business? News flash. No one likes to get negative feedback, no matter what gender or race they are. The difference is when a white person gets miffed or touchy on the tail end of a critique it often produces a different reaction than when a black person behaves the same way. That’s wrong.
This may require some development as well. Teach managers what they can say and what they can’t to avoid litigation if that’s a concern. Coach them how to use different tactics to get the outcomes they desire, which are better performance and improved skills.
When I was in the workplace, I used to ask for feedback, but I rarely got anything actionable. Rather, it wasn’t deep and actionable. It might be specific to that situation, how not to make that mistake again, which is great. But how about connecting that teachable moment to a larger performance and advancement strategy?
It can be done. Black women are there, ripe for leadership. We want to advance. We’re willing to do the work. We just need help. We need someone to believe in us, to show us the way, and to not hold it against us if we stumble while climbing up that rather slippery career ladder.