Post by Jane K. Stimmler, contributing Women On Business writer
Madeleine Albright has said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Indeed, as more women get ahead and reach influential positions, it is critical that they use their influence to enable change in the balance of power at and near the top. Only then will business cultures evolve from the historically male-dominated “command and control” environments that still exist today. It is important for women to be sensitive to the issues that their more junior female colleagues face. And, as research shows, barriers can be even more daunting for African American women.
In order to better understand the issues, similarities and differences of Caucasian women and Women of African descent in the workplace, The Leader’s Edge/Leaders By Design brought together women of different races from corporations throughout the greater Philadelphia area. Each women invited was asked to bring a guest of the opposite race. The goal was for the women to brainstorm the biggest issues dividing them and suggest solutions for how they might bridge the gaps between them.
Some important discussion ensued. It turned out that most of the white women had never had the opportunity for open and honest discussion about race with women of another race, and perhaps had never thought about the differences in their backgrounds, experiences and, more importantly, the barriers they face because of the color of their skin. The black women we spoke with saw this as insensitivity, and it felt to them that important issues were being ‘swept under the rug’ instead of getting the attention and thought they deserved. These issues and others are covered in more detail in Breaking Into the Boys’ Club 2009.
A 2004 survey by the Catalyst organization cites the percentage of corporate officers in the Fortune 500 companies who are African American women as only 1.1%, and reports work challenges such as lack of consistent company support, stereotyping, and exclusion from informal networks. And, it is not always the obvious things that create barriers for women of African descent. It is also the small slights, micro- inequities, and subtle omissions that can add up over time, taking a tremendous toll on performance, eroding confidence and producing a lack of trust.
The forum held in Philadelphia represented new and uncharted territory for many participants, and yielded a number of suggestions. Many said that it is important to challenge assumptions and to reach out to others by starting a dialogue – even if it involves stepping out of your comfort zone. A number of the women stated that it is important to take the risk with each other to be more open and honest. This, they felt, is necessary to developing trust. They all agreed that in the end, when a woman advances, no matter what color she is, it is a success for all women.
What has your experience been? Please join the conversation!