Prof. Alexis Smith and Pamela Carlton joined Wharton’s Stew Friedman to discuss their research on the qualities of successful black women in the workplace before and after The Great Recession.

Black professional women face the dual challenge of belonging to two minority groups that are traditionally undervalued and underpaid in the workplace. Alexis (Lex) Smith is an Associate Professor of Management at the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University and her research spans workplace issues such as gender, diversity, bias, and discrimination. Pamela (Pam) Carlton is President of Springboard, which is a consulting firm that assesses organizations for inclusive culture. Springboard produced the groundbreaking report, Black Women Executives Research Initiative. Smith and Carlton are co-authors of a research project called Making the Invisible Visible. They joined Stew Friedman on his show, Work and Life, on Wharton on Business Radio 132 to discuss their research on black professional women in the workplace and how these unusually resilient women defy the odds and overcome barriers to achieve success.

Here are highlights from their conversation, available in full here as a free podcast.

Black women are forced to conquer dual challenges in the workplace as members of two minority groups.

Lex Smith: “Black women tend to be about 7 percent of the US population, but they’re only a small fraction of senior management and executive roles in most corporate America. We’re talking about one, one and a half percent in senior and executive roles. There are currently zero black female CEOs in the Fortune 500. And we know that the pay gap is persistent for all women, but it’s even more egregious when we talk about black women and women of color in general. For women overall, we’re talking about the vicinity of 84 or 76 cents on the dollar. But for black women, we’re talking closer to 63 cents on the white male dollar. That is a much larger discrepancy and we’re starting to see the impact of intersectionality when we start looking at breakdowns, not just of women but women of color.”

“Intersectionality refers to the state that we all live in. None of us are characterized by one identity group. Your race for example, is an identity group, your gender, your age, or generational group is an identity group. And when we start to layer them on top of one another, they don’t just come with additional identity badges, but rather additional meanings, additional advantages. In some situations, additional disadvantages.”

“When we look at that pay gap and the fact that it’s much bigger for black women, it describes the way in which intersectionality is having a multiplicative or an increasing effect of the disadvantages of not just being a woman, but also being black. And so in that way, they sort of compound and build on one another.”

After seeing only three women of color out of 200 at a women’s leadership conference, Pamela decided to research Black Women Executives to find out more about how black professional women can break barriers and achieve success.

Pam Carlton: “The first idea came in the early 2000s. I was with one of the two investment banks that I worked for over the course of my career. The current one was a leader on Wall Street on women in leadership. They were one of the first to decide to hold a senior women’s leadership conference. Being one of the most senior in the bank at the time, I was asked to join the planning committee by the CFO, who was our first female CFO.”

“She was giving an overview of this conference. I was daydreaming about how proud my parents would be about this little black girl in the room where it was happening. I heard the CFO call my name, but I didn’t hear the question she asked. She had to repeat it a second time. She was asking me ‘How many women of color will be at the senior women’s leadership conference?’ My cheeks flamed, I was so thoroughly embarrassed that I hadn’t thought about it.”

“I got in the door, I had drawn the line behind my own heels and I didn’t even think about if my sisterhood would be by my side at that senior leadership conference. I and a few colleagues got together and did the research to answer that question. It turned out there were three of us. Out of 200 white women, three women of color. I said that was never going to happen again.”

“Shortly thereafter, I decided that I wanted to make this my career. I launched Springboard and had the opportunity to do research on black women executives. And that’s when I started working with this academic team of which Lex is a member.”

Smith and Carlton discovered that the majority of black professional women either maintained their job level or even rose above after The Great Recession.

Lex Smith: “We started contacting various women within executive levels in their organizations, all black women. We interviewed them in 2008, so just before The Great Recession began. And then we had the amazing opportunity to come back and re-interview them as a follow-up in 2014.”

“We expected a fairly grim story given the global financial crisis and so much of the media had said people of color in particular were hit hard. But we found that the majority of the people in our sample either stayed at about their same level or rose above. So something in the vicinity of two thirds had actually progressed in their careers.”

Pam Carlton: “How do you navigate a global financial crisis and stay on your feet? Lex being the researcher will tell you that 60 people is pretty representative. Other research has shown that black women executives are very confident. They have the staying power and the self-awareness to reinvent themselves, either within their current organization or reinvent themselves across different opportunities.”

Five Actions that Led to Success

1. Maintain resilience in the face of challenge.

Lex Smith: “There were a number of qualitative characteristics that the women embodied that really made them unique. Pam pointed to one of the huge ones, which is that sense of hardiness and resilience in the face of challenge, and a lot of that came out of their backgrounds. Pam describes always being in environments, especially in her educational upbringing, where she may have been one of the few.”

“This was echoed in almost all of the stories that the women told us. They all talked about being one of the only, and that sharpened them for the kinds of challenges that they would face in the workplace. In addition, they also talked about having huge levels of support from their family backgrounds. Many of them, if not all of them, were one of the first to be at that apex of their career. And so while on one hand they didn’t have a lot of others that looked like them that they could reach out to for support, they had a huge wellspring of support from their family background and they pulled on that.”

2. Build social capital and craft conscious relationships.

Pam Carlton: “One aspect that was mentioned earlier is having key relationships that are within the organization, as well as beyond the organization. Conscious relationship crafting was one of the critical success factors.”

Lex Smith: “We identified a number of tactics that they used to gather the visibility that they needed, not visibility for being different, but visibility as a professional, as a credible expert in their area. And the relationship crafting was critical. We specifically said “conscious” because it’s easy to fall into that which is familiar. One of our participants put it so well, she said that it’s sort of like “a disease”, a regular thing that we all do, which is fall towards that which is familiar. And in this situation, she was talking about falling towards that which is like you.”

“But when you find yourself in a position where you are visibly different, you have to break out of that natural tendency. And again, it’s a tendency that all of us, black, white, men, women, all of us have that tendency towards that which is familiar. They were conscious of breaking out of that familiar comfort and looking for opportunities to build relationships with people who will be different from them.”

“They showed us that it took that kind of longevity in order to develop enough relationship, power, social capital, and political capital to overcome some of the hostility that came with intersectionality and visibility. The difference between having a shorter tenure and a longer tenure really had to do with the amount of political cachet, the amount of social relationships, the amount of people who would, as one woman told us, walk down a dark alley with you and have your back.”

3. Take risks and embrace all opportunities.

Pam Carlton: “There are two things that I would like to emphasize, and that is looking at every opportunity as a great opportunity. Whether it is something big and scary, and therefore you have to take a risk on: it’s worth the risk. And our invisibility in some cases plays to our advantage in maybe even surprising people about how well you perform.”

“On the other hand, taking a small opportunity because that’s all you can get and then doing a bang-up job and taking a victory lap, and helping you become more visible from that opportunity. Every opportunity is a great opportunity.”

4. Break barriers and develop confidence.

Lex Smith: “One of the big takeaways for me started from the very beginning. When Pam and I started talking about this, I was reminded of an earlier quote I had read about “being outsiders within.” It’s a term that’s used regularly in sociology that refers to the idea of constantly being an outsider, even within your workplace and your home place.”

“So at work, they are outsiders because they don’t look like the norm. And at home, they’re also outsiders because they have this very rarefied position in their corporate life. And what they get from that is a sense of self-reliance and confidence that drives them through some of the difficulty. And a part of what comes out of being that outsider is recognizing that there are benefits to having this intersectional status.”

“We found that lots of black women we talked to didn’t seem to have the same negative stereotypes that white women or black men had. They were able to be sort of released from some, because some of those stereotypes canceled each other out. And in other ways, they also found that in some situations, they were double outsiders.”

“What many of them pointed to was that they were able to look for the opportunities in being different, as well as avoid the disadvantages. And it made them agile. It made them able to see where they could take negative energy and turn it into motivation.”

5. Stay true to your values in the face of adversity.

Lex Smith: “Intersectionality and visibility have been a really interesting area to study because it tells us about the benefits as well as the constraints of being different. When you hit a wall where you’re doubly stigmatized, but at the same time, no one knows what to do with you because you’re a surprise: nobody knows what to expect. It really forced the women in our sample to look within for what was real about them. And to me, it’s a story of finding your authentic voice, finding how to lead authentically. That is what resonated with the people in their lives and what made them successful.”

— Erin Lomboy, W’21

Posted: November 6, 2020

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