Despite our qualifications, black women are still hugely underrepresented in the corporate world and in other centers of power. The reasons are varied—corporations are often ineffective at putting their own diversity policies into practice, or still practice a form of tokenism where one black woman is seen as fulfilling a quota. Another factor holding us back: Us. As Ella LJ Edmondson Bell sees it, we tend to be outspoken and self-sufficient. All good qualities. But, says Bell, an 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, “We’ve been taught, ‘Put your nose to the grindstone.’ ‘Why do I need relationships? I’m working as hard as I can.’ But you can’t be a leader if you don’t build relationships.” Building relationships builds buzz, and buzz is what gets you noticed. “For black women, that buzz is lacking . . . Buzz is about performance and relationship. Sometimes we sabotage ourselves . . . Sometimes we leave [a job] too soon. It takes longer for us; we think it’s going to happen overnight. And when you leave too soon, you don’t get the goodies.”
Some of the issues are similar to (if perhaps more intense than) those that have dogged white women’s professional progress: the glass (or, as some African-American women call it, “concrete”) ceiling; the stereotyping (we’re too confrontational, too aggressive, too quick to question authority); the exclusion from informal networking opportunities for those of us who do want to build the buzz.
A key component to breaking through those barriers, experts say, is mentorship, someone to help you navigate the intricacies of work life, whether work means a law firm, a major corporation, academia or an hospital. According to Katherine Giscombe, vice president of women of color research at Catalyst, a New York–based research firm that studies women in business, women of color who had two or more mentors are much more likely to be promoted, and that, generally, “the more diverse the mentors in terms of the type of support they provide, the better.” Better still: Having a sponsor who has got the power to push you forward. “You need a rabbi,” says Bell.
“Those of us who trail-blazed before, we had our mentors, but it wasn’t as obvious at times,” says Judith Jamison, 66, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “Everybody had everybody’s back, but now it’s really out there. Women are supported in ways that were not obvious before.” Fifteen years ago, Jamison started a women’s initiative for female choreographers of all colors, many of who now have their own dance companies. “Mentorship is important, absolutely,” she says. “It’s key, all the way from my family, through my teachers, through the wisdom you honor and respect. I’m thinking [dancer/choreographers] Carmen de Lavallade, the Mary Hinksons along your way, Sylvia Waters and Agnes de Mille, if that isn’t mentorship, I don’t know what is.”
There are formal networking organizations, like historically black sororities such as the Alpha Kappa Alphas (which celebrated its centennial in 2008) and Delta Sigma Theta (my grandmother’s sorority), and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, which focuses on promoting leadership development and gender equity for women of color.