As a young professional working for Lockheed Martin, Representative Donna Edwards (Democrat of Maryland), 51, had to shrug off that sense of loneliness that comes from being the only black woman in the room. There was also the little problem of the older white guy who kept calling her Stella in big meetings. One day, Edwards got up her nerve to confront him in front of the assembled. He claimed that calling her Stella was a sort of compliment, because that was the name of his favorite horse. “That was troubling on so many different levels,” Edwards says. “It’s an example of the many ways you can be belittled in the workplace, particularly as a woman.” Interestingly, the man ended up becoming her mentor and one of her biggest supporters. To this day, Edwards, the first African-American woman to represent Maryland in Congress, is convinced that what pushed her out of professional obscurity was her decision to speak up at that meeting.
What's the viewpoint of the Obama women on how their success might affect other black professionals? I asked them, but the White House was not enthusiastic about administration officials participating in this story. One press secretary told me, “We’re now transitioning out of that phase” to focus on “substantive policy issues.” In my view, the continued existence of the concrete ceiling is, in fact, a substantive issue. But of the 10 or so D.C. women I contacted, only one, EPA chief Lisa P. Jackson, agreed to speak. I read her those dispiriting statistics about black women that had so startled me. “I’m actually surprised as well,” she said. Jackson has always worked in the public sector, and she sees it as historically more welcoming than the private sector to women and minorities. (Her father was a New Orleans postal worker at a time when segregation severely limited the choices of all African-Americans.) The advancement of the Obama women, she says, is “a continuation of a trend, but certainly the largest expansion of it in terms of brilliant women in positions of real authority, [of] leading by example.”
Despite all the obstacles, I’m confident the time will come when the example Jackson and her colleagues are setting will have a ripple effect, when professional-level black women will cease to be seen as unicorns, when we will get the recognition—and visibility—we have earned.
“The Obama administration has given us an image that’s very new today but 20 years from now will be extraordinarily normal,” says Ella LJ Edmondson Bell, associate professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and author of Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity. “This is the first time in our history that we have been able to get a glimpse of what a multiracial workforce looks like, particularly in the White House.
“But this is just coming attractions,” Bell adds. Demographics are on black women’s side, she says: In less than 10 years, 83 percent of the entering workforce will be composed of women, immigrants and people of color.
But 10 years, 20 years . . . that feels like an awfully long wait.