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Recognizing Workplace Challenges Faced by Black Women.

January 2020

Andie Kramer, Contributor

Gender bias makes career advancement markedly harder for women than men. But gender bias is not the only discriminatory obstacle women face in their careers. Women whose social identities are different from the dominant workplace expectations—that is, women who are not white, straight, less than 40, and childless—encounter three additional obstacles: having to navigate more precarious lose/lose double binds, being forced to conform to cultural norms that may be at odds with their social identities, and encountering biases in addition to those about gender. These three sorts of obstacles are brought into sharp relief by comparing the workplace experiences of black women and white women.

A More Perilous Double Bind

In gendered workplaces, leaders are stereotypically seen as agentic: confident, competent, decisive, forceful, and independent. Men are stereotypically seen in precisely the same ways. As a consequence, men are regarded as natural leaders, but women—both black and white—must overcome serious challenges to be seen as competent, confident leaders.

White women are stereotypically seen as communal: pleasant, caring, deferential, and concerned about others. Their leadership challenge, therefore, is to avoid being seen as so communal as to be an ineffective leader without being seen as so agentic as to be unlikable. Black women face a very different challenge. They are not stereotypically seen as communal but rather as assertive, angry, and “having an attitude.” Their challenge, therefore, is to avoid being seen as so angry or assertive as to be unlikable without being seen as so subservient and compliant as to be lacking in strength and independence.

Thus, while both white and black women face potential lose/lose double binds, black women’s double bind is far more precarious than that of white women’s. If white women are seen as too communal to lead, they will still be seen as likable, but black women lose either way: if they are seen as angry they are unlikable, if they are seen as subservient they are not respected. In other words, black women must navigate their lose/lose dilemma in such a way that they get it just right or they will be seen as neither leaders nor likable.

White Cultural Expectations.

In gendered workplaces, all women are under pressure to conform to dominant masculine behavioral norms. Black women, however, are also under pressure to conform to dominant white behavioral norms. Thus, they are often under pressure to change how they dress, wear their hair, and speak, and also to become more sociable and less “ethnic.” Of course, there are limits to how far black women can go in conforming to white cultural expectations without losing a sense of authenticity. A woman’s sense of authenticity—a conviction that her outward behavior is consistent with her inner values and identity—is essential to her emotional well-being, productivity, and personal satisfaction. Yet because black women are under pressure to conform to white workplace norms, even highly successful black women, such as graduates of Harvard Business School, report they find it difficult “to be themselves” at work. Thus, black women pursuing careers in gendered workplaces are continually walking a tightrope between “fitting in” and feeling authentic.

Biases Beyond Gender

The pressure that black women feel to conform to white behavioral norms is the result of the expectation that everyone in gendered workplaces will conform to these norms. But for black women, racial bias is loaded on top of this general expectation. As a result, black women are more likely than white women to be treated unfairly in promotions and training, to be discriminated against in advancement opportunities, and to experience a far greater sense of frustration and disengagement. In the legal profession, for example, the American Bar Association found that black women are often excluded from their firms’ internal networks, seldom offered opportunities for client contact, and infrequently receive challenging assignments. Indeed, 66 percent of black women were found to have been excluded from both formal and informal networking opportunities, but only six percent of white women had been. Black women’s experiences in other professions and business areas are no different from their experiences in law.

Women's Differences Matter

There is no denying that in comparison to men, women face significant workplace discrimination. But women with non-dominant social identities—whether they involve race, ethnicity, sexual identity, age, or motherhood status—face additional sorts of discrimination. Therefore, in thinking about women and work, we must always remember that women do not come in only one flavor. And depending on their distinctive social identities, they can face very different obstacles as they seek to advance in their careers.

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