'Obama Effect' for Black Women?

Will the multiracial administration mean a boost for less-visible black women?

U.N. ambassador Susan E. Rice and the other "Obama women" are redrawing the portrait of power.
Photograph: Illustration by David Cowles.

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.

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