Black Women Leaders: Navigating the Intersection of Gender and Race

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Wharton’s Stephanie Creary speaks with scholars Ella Bell Smith and Stella Nkomo about their seminal book, ‘Our Separate Ways.’

When professors Ella Bell Smith and Stella Nkomo tried to get their book about the different experiences of Black and white women in corporate America published 20 years ago, it was so controversial that it threatened their academic careers.

“I was told constantly, ‘You’re not going to get tenure. This book is not going to get you where you need to be. You need to do other articles. You can do your book later on in your career,’” Smith recalled. “People don’t realize we had to fight.”

That’s why the authors can take a certain satisfaction in the upcoming re-issue of Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity. It’s scheduled for an August 10 release, with an updated preface and epilogue.

Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary, who is a diversity and identity scholar, signed petitions to get the book re-issued. She talked with Smith and Nkomo — whom she described as “organizational behavior royalty” for their contributions in the field — during a segment of her Leading Diversity at Work podcast series. (Listen to the podcast above. You can find more episodes here.)

“So much of what I do as a scholar and as a professor is informed by the fact that the two of you have been putting out insights in both research and practice for a long time,” Creary said. “My interest in understanding race in organizations was fundamentally informed by the work that you have published in the academic realm, and certainly this book.”

“I think the world is getting blurry, and I think that’s a good thing.” –Ella Bell Smith

Creary said the book was ahead of its time when it was released in 2001, and it’s even more relevant now. Last year’s killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor reignited America’s conversation about social justice and racial equality, including how that looks in the workplace.

“I wanted this book back out because I do think that so much of what’s in there, the premise, is timely,” Creary said.

Recognizing Gendered Racism

The book chronicles the experiences of 120 Black and white female managers to show that gender isn’t the only factor that defines a woman’s career. Race, gender, and class weigh heavily on the outcomes.

Smith, a professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and Nkomo, a professor of human resources management at the University of Pretoria, said the differences were something that nobody in academia or industry wanted to recognize or talk about when they started their research decades ago. There was an assumption that the struggle for all women was universal, and that women supported each other in some mythical sisterhood.

“We all know that’s not true within any group of women,” Smith said. “But the divide between Black and white women was so obvious, both in our own careers and in our relationships with white women.”

Both authors are in their 70s. They’ve lived through Civil Rights movement, are well-acquainted with resistance, and are unapologetically blunt. Smith refers to herself as “the troublemaker” and calls Nkomo “the nice one.” As Black female scholars, they represented a small contingent and fought hard to make others recognize the importance of research on gendered racism. When they were trying to gather data about female managers from companies, they encountered pushback because the companies didn’t want to acknowledge the problems. So, they went straight to the women themselves.

“When anybody starts talking about gender, white women’s eyes light up and they get all animated. When people talk about race, they dim,” Nkomo said. “There was something about people not realizing this intersectional space. When you want to change the experience or change the possibilities for Black women or women of color, you must talk about what does it mean to sit at the intersection of race and gender where both identities can lead to invisibility?”

“You’ll never end racism unless you look at how Black women or women of color are left behind.” –Stella Nkomo

Nkomo pointed to the events of last year as an example: George Floyd’s killing has loomed larger in the public eye than the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor.

“There’s still this challenge when people try to make the plight of women of color, Black women, visible,” she said.

Blurring the Lines

The three professors talked about the cultural boundaries that women of color often cross when entering a predominantly white workplace. They leave behind their life-shaping experiences to adopt a more widely acceptable persona. It’s part of the history of a segregated America, where even houses of worship are traditionally divided by race.

But the women said the lines are blurring, which benefits everyone. They pointed to the “rainbow” of people who participated in last year’s widespread social justice protests as evidence of how far the nation has come.

“This is a different historical moment. I’m not sure we’re going to get a different end result,” Smith said. “I think the world is getting blurry, and I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s a very good thing. But on the other hand, we still go back into our homelands, and our homelands happen to be very, very different.”

Nkomo urged corporations to take a cue from protesters and make bedrock changes. When the book was first released, the participation of Black women in the C-suite was around 1%. Twenty years later, that number hovers around 1.4%.

“It kind of says we haven’t gone very far,” Nkomo said. “This moment is a chance for companies. If they’re serious about understanding systemic racism, we like to remind them, make sure you look at race and gender. Because you’ll never end racism unless you look at how Black women or women of color are left behind.”

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