WOCA 2021: Our Separate Ways: Comparing the Corporate Careers & Work Lives of Black and White Women

The following session is from Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s fourth annual Women of Color and Their Allies event, held Oct. 21, 2021. This year’s theme was “Sustaining Workforce Positions for Women of Color.” Throughout the day, panels consisting of researchers, thought leaders and executives shared their insights and strategies for helping women of color overcome common workplace barriers and spotlight allies working to sustain their positions within the workforce.

In Our Separate Ways, co-authors Ella Bell and Stella Nkomo take an unflinching look at the surprising differences in trials and triumphs that Black and white women face on their way up the corporate ladder. Listen in as they share years of powerful research and writing, culled from the professional work experiences of 120 Black and white female managers across the American business arena.

Panelists for this session included Dr. Ella Bell Smith, Professor of Business Administration at Dartmouth College, and Dr. Stella Nkomo, Professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Carolynn Johnson, CEO of Fair360, formerly DiversityInc, moderated the session.



Key takeaways from the session:


Dr. Nkomo on the failings of DEI programs at many corporations

“It’s like if you look at a picture, and then 25 years later it looks the same — that ought to be a message to you that whatever you’re doing is not working. That’s the disappointment I see: companies keep doing the same things, getting the same result. If you look at any data, this race and gender hierarchy is almost like a concrete foundation. And what it looks like today in light of Black Lives Matter shows it still hasn’t changed. There are white men at the top. Then, after that, it’s not Black men following. It’s white women. 

“Look at the data. For many places, diversity just means ‘Let’s bring in more women — white women.’ So, the hierarchy is white males, and then you have white women who are progressing. Then you get Black men or men of color. And then you get women of color at the very bottom. That is the thing that must change. Until you transform that hierarchy, you’re just spinning your wheels. You have to do something radical to disrupt that hierarchy.”


Dr. Smith on the secret of feeling empowered

“We’ve gotta get out of our own way. Too often, I lose track. I lose sense when I stop believing in my worth or when I look and see what others are doing, and I give them my energy and power. ‘I’m not doing this. I’m not doing that. She’s doing this. He’s doing that.’ I come from a very competitive academic world. When I started comparing myself to the boys and the girls, I noticed when they got opportunities, and I wasn’t getting opportunities, and I got in my way. I stopped believing in myself. I stopped believing in my worth. I got cantankerous. I stopped my self-love. I stopped taking care of myself. You can’t do any of that. God gives us a lane. Make your lane shine. Stop worrying about what everybody else is doing.”


Dr. Smith on creating your work identity

“Stop wearing black all the time! The question I still get time after time in the workplace is, ‘Why are black women so angry?’ And then when I walk into a company, and everybody’s looking like they’re part of the military in black, I see why people think that. It’s like, no, will you put some pink on? Put some color on. Don’t get carried away. We can go really crazy. Moderate that because, believe it or not, we’re walking stereotypes. Sometimes we fall into the trap of actually walking into that stereotype, owning that stereotype, because we’re stereotyped everywhere: in our communities, in our homes sometimes, in our neighborhoods. We are stereotyped as the angry, powerful, strong, Black woman. Get out of the stereotype!” 


Dr. Nkomo on building self-identity and self-importance

“We have to rise above all of the oppression and constantly being told ‘You’re not good enough. You don’t really fit,’ and being invisible in many of our institutions, and not valued. It doesn’t make sense. You’re a well-educated Black woman. You tried to do all the right things. And you still sometimes feel invisible. That hurts. In some ways, it’s part of what we in academics call the scarcity model. You can’t buy into the idea that there can only be one. Don’t buy into the scarcity model that you’ve got to be competitive with everybody around you. We often believe that there’s not enough out there for us. ‘There’s not a man out here for me. There’s not the right job for me.’ We buy into the scarcity model. Do not buy into it. If you look at successful women, they have not bought into the scarcity model. They understand that there’s plenty of room and more than enough for everyone.”