'Obama Effect' for Black Women?

African-American women are a major force in the Obama administration. They have big jobs (U.N. ambassador, FDA head, EPA chief and more). But will their success help other, less visible black women break down doors? Teresa Wiltz reports.

by Teresa Wiltz

“When white women talk about difficulties in advancing, they often talk about the glass ceiling,” says Katherine Giscombe, vice president of women of color research at Catalyst. For non-white women, especially those who are African-American, the ceiling is more like concrete—denser than glass, says Giscombe, “and a lot harder to break.”

I have to admit that I was stunned by those statistics: The low numbers of African-American women in management run counter to what I see, what I’ve grown up with. I think of my grandmother, who was a college professor. I think of my mother, who left a management position with Coors to form her own special-events business. I think of my aunt, who retired as CEO of the YWCA of Greater Los Angeles, and my cousins, who graduated from the dental and law schools at Harvard. I think of all my relatives and my friends, and my friends’ friends.

“You see this huge disconnect,” says Pamela Mitchell, 45, who worked in senior management positions in inter-national business development before launching her own company, the Reinvention Institute, in Miami. “Black females have outpaced [black] males in terms of higher degrees, and yet the upper echelons are still somewhat closed to us.”

One problem is that there’s often a gap between a corporation’s policy and its real-world practice. According to Giscombe, every company she surveyed for her Catalyst research had some type of diversity policy. But the women of color she surveyed dismissed these policies as “ineffective.” Firms are “not really making managers accountable for developing and retaining African-American women,” Giscombe says. Then there’s the fact that, regardless of race, senior-level women tend to be in staff roles (such as community outreach) rather than in the more CEO-track “line” positions with profit and loss responsibility (such as sales).

When Pamela Mitchell was graduating from Harvard in the mid-1980s, she was offered a job as a corporate trainer. Her mother, herself a veteran of corporate life, told her to turn it down: “She said, ‘Never go into anything that isn’t a line position. Don’t go into HR or training; those are the jobs that they like to slot black women into. Once you get into that ghetto, it’s very difficult to get out.’

“But who’s telling people that?” Mitchell continues. “Nobody tells us that. I was lucky that my mother did.”

Another roadblock, ironically, is that whenever one of us does manage to break through, her very presence may provide an excuse for keeping other black women out. “Something that’s always been true for me in the media is this idea that there can be only one of you,” says Michel Martin, host of NPR’s Tell Me More and a journalist for more than two decades. “I’ve had the experience of being interviewed for jobs, knowing that friends of mine have been interviewed by the same company, and even though we’re equally competent and there’s more than one position available, only one of us is going to get hired.”

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