“I have had to deal with harassment in the forms of ageism, sexism, and racism. I have had mainly white male colleagues actively seek to discredit me, get me fired, and lecture me on how my style and personality make them uncomfortable,” says Sherece West-Scantlebury, president and CEO of The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, when asked about being a professional black woman in the workplace. “The outcome of the attempts to sabotage me is that I have learned to focus on my mission and goals and those of the organization.”
Further reflecting upon the various biases that she has faced throughout her career, West-Scantlebury continues: “I do not focus on my ego. They pushed me to up my game, up my excellence, and up my leadership skills. I work the proverbial ‘twice as hard’ and try to lead with grace.”
The social sector, like society at large, is fertile ground for the systemic barriers and biases that negatively affect black women. The unique set of social conditions that specifically hinder black women—who simultaneously experience racism and sexism—was coined “double jeopardy” by black feminist activist Frances M. Beal in 1969. Research confirms the very real consequences of double jeopardy that are detrimental to black women’s professional success.
Even though they live at the intersection of this double jeopardy, some black women have been able to turn trials into triumphs. Despite the never-ending hurdles, black women have developed survival strategies that reclaim their time, protect their souls, and accelerate their momentum towards greatness. These strategies all rely upon a commonality of community: Black women utilize the power of kinship—sharing stories and knowledge gained from experience, finding sponsors, and leveraging mentors—to overcome barriers to their career advancement.
Stories as Bridges to Understanding
In February 2018, I launched an interview series called Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership as a rebuttal to the false narrative that persists about black women based on racist caricatures—the servile mammy, the angry sapphire, the licentious jezebel, and the welfare queen, are the most widely visible harmful stereotypes of black women described by Tamara Winfrey Harris in The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America. Given our country’s history of white supremacy, patriarchy, and anti-black racism, it is not surprising that black women are underrepresented in leadership roles. After all, inequitable systems are designed with intention. By lifting up examples of purpose-driven, pace-setting black women, the series affirms, promotes, and elevates their experiences and rejects the fallacy of white male supremacy.
Stories have the power to birth new insights. In “Using Story to Change Systems,” Ella Saltmarshe emphasizes the impact of stories on changing the world. She writes, “Stories make, prop up, and bring down systems. Stories shape how we understand the world, our place in it, and our ability to change it.” Saltmarshe continues, “Story has many different qualities that make it useful for the work of systems change. It’s a direct route to our emotions, and therefore important to decision making. It creates meaning out of patterns. It coheres communities. It engenders empathy across difference. It enables the possible to feel probable in ways our rational minds can’t comprehend. When it comes to changing the values, mindsets, rules, and goals of a system, story is foundational.” By sharing stories by us and for us, Black & Bold pulls black women in all their glory from the margins to the center.
When I developed the interview questions for Black & Bold, I was in a place of fear, anxiety, and rage. Charlottesville was a numbing reminder of how deeply rooted hate and prejudice are within our culture. To summon courage and recalibrate, I set out to discover how other black women deal with the ongoing demands of simply existing in a world that rejects who we are at every turn. The resulting conversations offer insights and considerations for organizations and individuals alike who seek to more deeply understand the experiences and challenges faced by black women.
Mentors and Sponsors
Black women are not a monolith. Though we share similar experiences, we are as versatile as Beyoncé’s wardrobe changes during her epic Coachella performance. That being said, a universal theme from interviews focuses on the importance of mentors and sponsors. Mentorship and sponsorship can be seen as a continuum and are not mutually exclusive. Sponsors hold positions of authority and use their influence intentionally to help others advance, while mentors provide advice, feedback, and coaching. It’s possible for someone to be both a mentor and a sponsor depending on the situation. According to Carla Harris, vice chairman of wealth management and senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley, “a mentor needs to be someone you have chosen to have a relationship with, and likewise they have chosen you. Both parties must get to know and trust each other for the relationship to be effective because as a mentor you have to be definitive and tell the truth…. Sponsors are those who carry your name with them into the room and behind closed doors will argue passionately on your behalf. They are spending their political and social capital on you.”
The relevance of mentors and sponsors is not unique to the social sector. In “How Black Women Describe Navigating Race and Gender in the Workplace,” Maura Cheeks explores how black women navigate the intertwined barriers at the intersection of race and gender, specifically in the corporate sector. From her ten interviews, Cheeks observes that “almost every woman [she] interviewed touched on the idea of needing to find sponsorship in the workplace—the idea of finding someone at your company who can advocate for raises, projects, and promotions on your behalf.”
Vernetta Walker, former vice president of programs and chief governance officer at BoardSource, knows the value of networks and mentors: “As I look back on my earlier development, there are things I make sure my son and daughter know now about networking, connections, relationships, and mentors. I was a first-generation college graduate raised by my mother. There were gaps in terms of my professional development perhaps compared to what more well-off peers would know. Take the short cut and find a mentor,” she advises. “Don’t wait for someone else to find you a mentor.”
“Everyone should have their own personal board of directors. Black women are no different. They should seek out women and men who can offer advice and counsel. It’s important to have role models and mentors that will help you grow and tell you the truth,” says Michele Mason, executive director of Newark Charter School Fund. Mason attributes significant achievements in her life to the guidance of mentors.
“I wouldn’t have been successful if it wasn’t for the help of great coaches and role models who helped me formulate my goals and develop a plan to achieve them. Even years later, a mentor reviewed a job description for an executive role I was considering. She helped me map out the skills and competencies needed for me to fill a similar role,” continues Mason.
For Ify Walker, founder and chief talent matchmaker at The Offor Walker Group, her use of a kitchen cabinet has been a game changer. “Isolation is the biggest silencer of all good ideas and finding great ways to move forward. I count on the other women in my circle and seek their counsel. I had a situation where I was offered an honorarium that wasn’t commensurate with the time required or my worth and wasn’t sure what to do about it. I sought advice from my Lean In Circle of black women and was able to increase the honorarium five times over. We are so powerful when we work together and so often that’s not the narrative out there about black women,” she explains. “I might be the only person sitting in the room, but I’m not alone. I bring my army of supporters with me in spirit.”
Battling the status quo and exerting the requisite energy to navigate the challenges inherent within intersectional invisibility demands comfort with the discomfort. In “Interviews with 59 Black Female Executives Explore Intersectional Invisibility and Strategies to Overcome It,” the authors’ research “indicate that one main driver of their success was their ability to navigate the challenge of intersectional invisibility, or the tendency to be overlooked, disregarded, or forgotten due to one’s status as a member of two underrepresented and devalued groups.” The link between intersectional invisibility and double jeopardy cannot be understated. The support of mentorship and sponsorship often acts as a lubricant to keep the gears towards one’s aspirations in motion. For Tyra Mariani, executive vice president at New America, mentors have provided balance and perspective. “They often have the ability to affirm one’s reactions while providing a perspective on alternative ways to look at a situation and respond to it,” says Mariani.
“Mentorship has been critical for me. Culturally competent, extraordinary, bold black women full of integrity. Black women who are both mothers and wives. Black women who are financially stable, who have written books, who sit on boards, are part-time lecturers or professors, leading massive organizations – all women whose leadership is deeply important to me. I have sought out their leadership and have asked them to support me and they have been incredible mentors,” says Tenicka Boyd, national director of the Leaders of Color Initiative at Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).
Turning Insights into Actions
What do the stories of Black & Bold contribute to the understanding of black women’s experiences in the workplace, and what do these insights mean for organizations aspiring to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive? Lacking system-wide organizational support, black women navigate challenges in the workplace through mentorship, support, and a host of other strategies. Their agency, however, does not absolve organizations and colleagues from intentionally creating more inclusive and equitable work environments. The following recommendations are a starting point:
Listen and recognize the unique problems women of color experience. “For black women, race inevitably defines the experiences of who we are at work because it’s how society identifies us when we step outside our doors,” writes Cheeks in The Psychic Stress of Being the Only Black Woman at Work.
Prioritize diversity. Research abounds which bolsters the business case for diversity. According to McKinsey, “when companies commit themselves to diverse leadership, they are more successful.” Research from the Center for Talent Innovation found that diverse teams are more innovative driving market growth and that there are six behaviors that unlock innovation: “ensuring that everyone is heard; making it safe to propose novel ideas; giving team members decision-making authority; sharing credit for success; giving actionable feedback; and implementing feedback from the team.”
Carla Harris distills it this way: “In order to get to the best idea and win on innovation, you will need different ideas in the room because innovation is born from ideas. In order to get different ideas in the room, you will need different perspectives because ideas are born from perspectives. And in order to get different perspectives, you will need different experiences in the room, because perspectives are born from experiences and finally, in order to get different experiences in your idea generating room, you will need different people in the room, because experiences are created by people.”
Pay a fair and equitable wage. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, black women are particularly damaged by inequitable pay. Organizations must ensure that compensation is commensurate with the role regardless of race, gender, and negotiation savvy.
Create space and encourage Employee Resource Groups (ERG). Also known as affinity groups, these are groups of employees who gather at work based on shared characteristics or life experiences. More than a social experience, ERGs provide support, offer professional development, and contribute to personal development by providing a shared space to collectively problem solve or seek counsel.
Elizabeth Whittaker-Walker, director of learning services and public policy at Council of Michigan Foundations, advises: “Don’t be threatened by our desire to commune. If people are requesting a resource group, it’s not about isolation or lack of inclusion. It’s often about survival and sometimes we need those spaces where we can just be and exist. A strong practice around inclusivity can go a long way.”