What Black Women Are Asked to Leave Out When We "Lean In"

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by Danielle Rene

Often, it seems that our blackness and our womanhood may leave us with two hands tied behind our back, trying to swim upstream in a world that doesn’t readily respect or accept either identity. As #BlackGirlMagic—which has become a war cry for some and a triumphant celebration for others—moves from trending topic to movement, there are women in leadership roles navigating the complexities of being both black and woman in these spaces. These positions sometimes mean women must choose between honoring their magic and earning a paycheck.

Recently Anne-Marie Campbell, a Jamaican born Black woman, was named executive Vice President of all U.S. Home Depot stores and it made headlines across the country for good reason. According to a 2015 Washington Post article on Black women in leadership, of the 23 women who were CEOs of S&P 500 companies in that year, only one was a Black woman. For me, Campbell’s recent accomplishment brought to mind what fellow Black woman leader Shonda Rhimes called the “F.O.D.”—or First, Only, Different—in her memoir, Year of Yes. Being the first, only, and different is an incredible honor, yet still a potentially frightening experience.

So what are the Black women in these roles facing when they take on leadership roles within their companies and industries?

When we talk about sitting at the table—the metaphor used most often to represent those who have the influence to drive decision-making within an organization—we might picture a lot of white men in business suits, important binders before them, at a long boardroom table. When Black women leaders take a seat at this metaphorical table, they bring blackness and womanhood to a space where both often do not exist. I talked with three women who explored what it means for them to be both undeniably Black and unapologetically woman in leadership and how they navigate the sometimes hostile waters to get ahead.

Alone at the Table

Being the F.O.D. means that, most times, Black women sit alone at the head of the table.

“It’s a big deal to be in this chocolate skin and in a position of influence and sit here alone. How much power do you have when you’re one person and your experience in the world is separate than what everyone else experiences? Who has influence?” remarked S.J., whose initials I’m using to protect her identity, about her attempts to drive decision-making at the mid-size nonprofit where she serves in a senior leadership position. Even in an organization committed to social justice, diversity, and equity, Black women are missing from the table and from those conversations. “I was always the only black person in the room. My former boss would always say, ‘She went to an Ivy League,’ when introducing me to people. It always felt like she was excusing my presence in the room,“ recalled S.J. about her experience moving up the leadership ladder.

J.C., a Black woman leader in the male-dominated tech industry, added, “There are a lot more women, but I am still often the only black face in the room. All these years, [and] it’s still shocking. I hoped that we would have made progress.” Although these women lack the comfort of community, each person remarked that leadership is an honor, a privilege and a key way to make impact at any organization.

Traitors on the Inside

Racism is a common battle where men and women of color fight the good fight, side by side. Sexism, however, becomes the friendly fire that threatens to undermine all our efforts and take out Black women in the process.

“When I ran for president of the National Bar Association—a predominantly African-American association of lawyers—a man asked me if I planned to get pregnant again,” Pamela, a mother of four and former president of the NBA. “A male leader would never go through that,” she continued.

This form of oppression comes from inside and outside the community, but it especially hurtful from the inside. “This is an issue that we don’t deal with. We deal with racism, but we rarely deal with the sexism that happens even inside our community. We don’t want to discuss the issue out of fear that it could undermine the bigger race issue. We almost feel like we’re traitors if we address it.”

It’s becoming increasingly clearer that one major obstacle these Black women face is sexism from all men including our own. Black women end up sacrificing our commitment to ourselves for our commitment to community.

J.C. also recalled an experience with a Black man who worked on her team who did not meet performance standards and disrespected her leadership. This led to him being fired from the team. Most leaders end up choosing between what makes sense for the business over what may be a personal call. As Pamela mentioned, “The protector in us—that natural instinct to protect—will sometimes place us in a situation where we won’t protect ourselves. We are protecting them from a larger community and at the same time we are taking abuse that we should not take. We feel that if we address it, we are giving ammunition to the ‘enemy.’ There is a guiltiness that goes along with it.”

For J.C., choosing to fire the Black man was the right thing, but she did so knowing that firing him meant hurting someone in our own community. However, his disrespect of her leadership likely hinted at the same sexism within our community that ultimately undermines all of our efforts. Black women leaders continue to fight between feeling responsible for the progress of the entire community while knowing that Black men may not always do the same for us. Pushing onward to leadership may often seem like it's requiring you to choose womanhood over Blackness.

Encouraging Sisterhood in Leadership

Although these women face hardships, there is hope, joy, strength and resilience in being a leader in your field. One experience each woman shared is joy for the privilege of leadership and the beauty of sister-leaders and mentors.

Pamela spoke to the power of our sisterhood as black women in leadership: “The power of sisterhood is just so great. We have to figure out the complicated issues. But what you get from sisters circling around each other is strength. The ability to cry and not be judged. The ability to be strong and not judged. You get the ability to be celebrated and loved, when [real sisterhood occurs]… and the support system is there. You have individuals who, when they see people attacking you, will stand in the gap for you. When they see you going down the wrong path, [they] will pull you to the side and help you strategize. I had that and it was amazing.”

It’s true that being a Black woman leader is a difficult position, but it is also an honor and a privilege. “The comfort, the inspiration, and the validation I get from hearing other black women talk about their success and how they have overcome varying circumstances helps me to feel that, despite the fact I’m the only black women in this room all the time. There is a community of us that exists virtually and it is so important to me,” S.J. remarked encouragingly.

The bond we create in this push, and the sisterhood we can create virtually and in our own offices, is what will continue to put more Black women at the table of organizations across this country. There are pieces of us we leave behind to get ahead, but there is still enough of us left to make an impact and break down walls for those coming behind us.

*Ed. Note: Some identifying information has been changed by request to protect the identity of the women interviewed.

Photo: Shutterstock

Danielle Rene is a connoisseur of snacks, writing and brunch. Her fiction and nonfiction writing focuses on all the things that make us laugh, cry and cuss. Read more: http://laughcrycuss.com or follow her on Twitter @deerene_.

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