'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

Will the multiracial administration mean a boost for less-visible black women? Includes an exclusive Web extra.

Watching the Democratic National Convention on my couch last year, I felt like such a geek, getting all choked up and teary as Michelle Obama spoke. As stereotype busting goes, this was a classic moment. It wasn’t so much what she said —although her words were wonderful—as what she symbolized: black excellence, black female excellence. As I would later find out, I wasn’t the only one crying. Michelle was representing all of us brown-skinned, dual-degreed, corporately employed integration babies. Watching Michelle, I felt that at last the world could see that we’re not neck-rolling, finger-snapping sistas with an ax to grind. That she isn’t—and we aren’t—as one political pundit put it, “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress.”

But then it turned out that Michelle was just the beginning. The newly minted president proceeded to pick one African-American after another for high-power positions, from White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett to Susan Rice (United States ambassador to the United Nations) to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg, MD, to surgeon general nominee Regina Benjamin, MD (whose appointment was, at press time, still awaiting Senate confirmation).

For many of us, this apparent tsunami of highly visible black women has been great news but no great surprise. Seeing these women—standing with the president, holding forth on the Sunday morning talk shows or looking glamorous at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner (the first at which a black woman, comic and former National Security Agency employee Wanda Sykes, emceed)—I thought, well, of course. After all, they look a lot like my friends and me.

Like me, the “Obama women,” as insiders have named them, are part of a generation of accomplished black women. Living in my buppie bubble, I was surprised that so many non-black people were surprised that there was such a deep bench of talent for Obama to draw from. For although Jarrett, Rice and the others are exceptional people, among black women they are not the exception.

Let me be clear: Not many individuals, black, white, brown or other, achieve that level of power, whether at the White House or at Xerox. And yet there are hundreds of thousands of us, highly qualified and highly educated, available to be tapped. As the first lady told Time magazine, “My mother said this in an interview and I completely agree with her, and it’s something that, you know, I want young people to remember. [She said] Michelle and Barack aren’t new; there are thousands of [them] all over this nation. And that is true . . . I know them, I’ve gone to school with them, I live with them. So the truth is, there are thousands of role models like me. I just happen to be the first lady.”

“We’re not unicorns,” concurs Tanya Chutkan, 47, an attorney who is a partner specializing in litigation and white collar criminal defense at the high-profile Washington, D.C.– based law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP. “We do exist. People always say, ‘Oh, your mother must be so proud.’ And I say, ‘Actually, she’s a lawyer too.’ ”

So we’re here, and we’re waiting—but will we now, finally, ascend? Will the Obama women have a trickle-down effect on how the rest of us are perceived and, ultimately, employed? Some say yes. Already we’re seeing some zeitgeisty changes on the cultural landscape: More black women on the cover of Vogue (so far this year: Michelle Obama, BeyoncĂ© and model Liya Kebede—a big contrast to 2008, when the only person of color who appeared on the cover was LeBron James). Then there’s BET, long known for its booty-shaking music videos, which recently announced plans to launch CENTRIC, a new channel targeted to upscale midlife black Americans. It is, apparently, now hip to be middle-aged, gifted and black.

Seeing yourself reflected in the pub-lic arena is gratifying, to be sure. But will this moment of fashionability trans-late into a new wave of black professional women rushing up the corporate ladder? Is it, as one hopeful journalist put it, “Christmastime”?

Andrea Berry has her doubts. “What did it do when Condoleezza Rice was there on the cabinet for those eight years?” retorts the 48-year-old senior vice president for broadcast operations at Fox Networks. “It didn’t change. I didn’t see anybody rushing to hire black women. I don’t know that [Rice made] a difference. And she’s extremely brilliant.”

Berry has a point. Our generation has been here before. By the 1970s, affirmative action had brought about a heightened sense of opportunity and possibility. But while affirmative action opened doors, it has also been used as a hammer against us, as in: “You just got in because you’re black. And a woman. A twofer!” It was more than a little disheartening in 2003 to hear some of my colleagues at the Washington Post blame the whole Jayson Blair plagiarism debacle on affirmative action at the New York Times. (Where do we place the blame for Stephen Glass, a white male who admitted to inventing stories wholesale for the New Republic?) Skip forward to this past summer, and check out a Washington Post article that, noting the increased number of black women reporters covering Michelle Obama, poses the question: “Are the beat reporters inadvertently invested in her success?” An alarm that of course has never been raised about white reporters covering white politicians or white first ladies.

Which is why so many of us feel as if we’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far. In the decade between 1996 and 2007, the number of black women getting master’s degrees increased 130 percent, while the increase for white women was 38 percent. There’s a reason we earn degrees at such a high rate. It’s been drummed into us both by birth and by history.

Traditionally, in the black community, education was seen as the only way up. In a world that limited your options, you fought back by arming yourself with university degrees. “It was important to excel,” says Carla A. Harris, 46, managing director at Morgan Stanley and author of Expect to Win: Proven Strategies for Success From a Wall Street Vet. “My mother was a strident, ardent believer that you couldn’t be on the borderline. If you wanted an A, you had to shoot for an A-plus.” Many of us, like my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, got their degrees from historically black colleges such as Morehouse (Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater), Spelman and Howard. After graduation, most of them, including my great-grandmother, became teachers. A rare few, like dentist Bessie Delany, one of the subjects of the book Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, managed to have careers as doctors and lawyers. Ida B. Wells-Barnett became a journalist and documented lynchings back in the 1890s; Madame C. J. Walker made a fortune marketing hair care products in the early twentieth century. But with the Civil Rights movement and then affirmative action, the world began opening up to African-Americans, and huge swaths of black women began to move into positions that had previously been closed to them.

And now we’re eyeing a move to the next level. Yet despite our qualifications, black women are still hugely underrepresented in the corporate world and in other centers of power. According to Catalyst, a New York–based research firm that studies women in business, African-American women hold only five percent of all managerial, professional and related positions; white women hold 41 percent. Women of color are similarly scarce on corporate boards. And until Ursula Burns was tapped earlier this year to head Xerox, there were no black female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

“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.”

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.

As with so many other groups who’ve struggled for equality, the younger black women reaping the rewards of an older generation’s efforts often have a sunnier outlook on just how much race matters. And social class can reinforce that buppie bubble: If you’re not the first in your family to get through the door, most likely you’ll have a comfort level around white folks that makes it easier to play the corporate game. That’s true for the age group that I call the Hybrids, those of us who were born from 1959 to 1969 and grew up in the post–Civil Rights, pre-hip-hop period. Not coincidentally, many of the Obama women are Hybrids. Riding the cusp between boomers and Gen Xers, post-segregation and allegedly post-racial, we’re comfortable straddling the line between Harvard and the hood. Growing up as we did next to kids of other colors makes for a worldview radically different from that of our parents, many of whom grew up in Jim Crow America.

“I can run up one side of the culture and down the other, and I can do it with ease and authenticity because I’m not fighting the same battles that my mama did,” says Washington Post journalist Lonnae O’Neal Parker, 42, author of I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work. “I’m taking it for granted that you’re taking my humanity for granted on a basic level.” Her experience is very different from that of Dartmouth’s Ella Bell, 60, who says, “We were the ones who walked in the door, and there wasn’t a welcome mat for us. We had to learn how to survive, how to play the game. We got hurt; we got wounded; we got insulted.”

Not feeling that you have to go in fighting the power is a luxury afforded us Hybrids. And it makes for a very different work experience from that of, say, broadcast pioneer Cathy Hughes, chair and founder of the Radio One and TV One networks, who was born in 1947 and came of age in the Black Is Beautiful era of the 1960s and 1970s. For her generation of black boomers, Hughes says, the mere sight of a black man on a date with a white woman was enough to ignite all sorts of hurt and resentment. “We would confront a white woman in the bathroom, or say something under our breath about the brother,” she recalls. “That certainly translates over into the workplace. There’s that bitterness. My generation was constantly in a defensive posture: ‘Did I not get this promotion because I’m black?’ ”

I can’t help but feel that, conversely, my Hybrid peers and I are sometimes too slow to recognize discrimination, whether it’s based on race, gender or both. “You all might be slow on the uptake, but we were overly paranoid,” Hughes says. “Maybe the next generation will find a happy medium.”

Ah, Generation Next. Thanks to the rap industry, African-Americans like Russell Simmons, P. Diddy, Jay-Z and Damon Dash got seriously rich building businesses that were, to steal a phrase from a hip-hop clothing line, “for us, by us.” And female entertainers such as BeyoncĂ© and the rapper Eve, as well as Simmons’s ex-wife, the model Kimora Lee Simmons, have done the same. The result: a new generation of entrepreneurs. According to Hughes, whose organization conducted a study of black consumers, the hip-hop generation (that is, twenty- and thirty-somethings) doesn’t care so much about making it in corporate America: “They’re saying, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to college so I can work for myself.’ ”

“Maybe we need to redefine what we mean by success,” says Fox’s Andrea Berry. “Who’s defining it as, ‘Woe is me, we don’t have any numbers in corporate America’? Who gives a shit? If they’re not going to give it to us, then we need to create our own.”

And be so visible doing it, the world will no longer feel compelled to remark upon our uniqueness. If that happens, the black women of Generation Next will not find themselves weeping in front of their TVs just because a smart black woman is having a prime time moment.  

Originally published in the October 2009 issue of MORE.

Teresa Wiltz is a senior culture writer for TheRoot.com. She lives in Washington, D.C., and is writing a book about race.

African-American women are a major force in the Obama administration: The New Face of D.C. Power. But how are they faring in other parts of the workplace?


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.

But many women, like Andrea Berry, a 48-year-old senior vice president for broadcast operations at Fox Networks, find that they tend to network along more informal lines, getting together for lunches, or unofficially mentoring young talent. “There’s a sisterhood,” Berry says of her fellow African-American vice presidents at Fox. “But whether we can do an organized thing for the betterment of people, I don’t know if we have time for that,” she muses. “We’re all working; we all have husbands; we all have kids. The work-life balance for all women in challenging.” (Berry, who has a mentee herself, notes that many of her peers have decided they want to leave corporate life and start giving back.)

“I’m not a joiner,” says Tanya Chutkan, 47, an attorney who is a partner specializing in litigation and white collar criminal defense at the high-profile Washington, D.C.–based law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP. “What’s been helpful to me are other women in the areas in which I’ve practiced who’ve reached out to me. When I was a summer associate, partners in my firm would take us to lunch. Now I make it a habit to take the summer associates out.” D.C. is a small enough city, Chutkan says, so that women lawyers know each other and will pass along cases that they can’t take. Or, if they know someone who’s applying for a judgeship, it’s, “Let’s email the people we know and lobby for them. Informal lobbying and mentoring and reaching out, that’s more effective than a formal organization.”

Whether black women choose formal or informal networking routes, “you open your own doors,” says Judith Jamison. “There is no ceiling. You create your own space.”

“You put your best foot out there in the world, and never forget where you came from, and how far you came,” Jamison adds. “Because you didn’t get there by yourself.” 

Teresa Wiltz is a senior culture writer for TheRoot.com. She lives in Washington, D.C., and is writing a book about race.

African-American women are a major force in the Obama administration: The New Face of D.C. Power. But how are they faring in other parts of the workplace?

First Published Fri, 2009-09-11 11:27

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