Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity

Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity



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Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity by Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell, Ella L. Bell, Stella M. Nkomo, Stella M. Nkomo

In Our Separate Ways, authors Ella Bell and Stella Nkomo take an unflinching look at the surprising differences between black and white women's trials and triumphs on their way up the executive ladder. Based on groundbreaking research that spanned eight years, Our Separate Ways compares and contrasts the experiences of 120 black and white female managers in the American business arena. In-depth histories bring to life the women's powerful and often difficult journeys from childhood to professional success, highlighting the roles that gender, race, and class played in their development.

Although successful professional women come from widely diverse family backgrounds, educational experiences, and community values, they share a common assumption upon entering the workforce: "I have a chance." Along the way, however, they discover that people question their authority, challenge their intelligence, and discount their ideas. And while gender is a common denominator among these women, race and class are often wedges between them.

In Our Separate Ways, you will find candid discussions about stereotypes, learn how black women's early experiences affect their attitudes in the business world, become aware of how white women have-perhaps unwittingly-aligned themselves more often with white men than with black women, and see ways that our country continues to come to terms with diversity in all of its dimensions.

Whether you are a human resources director wondering why you're having trouble retaining black women, a white female manager considering the role of race in your office, or a black female manager searching for perspective, you will find fresh insights about how black and white women's struggles differ and encounter provocative ideas for creating a better workplace environment for everyone.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781578512775
Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press
Publication date: 01/28/2001
Pages: 339
Product dimensions: 6.48(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.24(d)

About the Author

Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell is the Leon E. Williams Visiting Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business.

Stella M. Nkomo is a Professor of Business Leadership at the University of South Africa Graduate School of Business Leadership.

Read an Excerpt

Ruthie Mae White has always been a survivor. The eldest of eight children born to Johnnie Mae and Jonathan White, she grew up in the Carolinas in the 1950s in one of the poorest counties in the United States. Johnnie Mae tried to support her family by sharecropping and cooking and cleaning for whites. But in the rural South, black people trying to scrape out a living by sharecropping lived a mission impossible. Poverty that defied description was an everyday reality for Ruthie Mae and her family. The house the family rented was no larger than a small shed, with floors made of uneven plywood planks perched atop concrete cinder blocks. The roof was a combination of rusty tin and tarpaper. Ruthie Mae does not remember having indoor plumbing until she was in high school, but she does recall the fun she used to have chasing chickens out from underneath the house through the cracks between the worn-out floorboards.

Today, Ruthie Mae White is vice-president of mortgage originations for a vast metropolitan area in one of the country's largest financial institutions. Ruthie Mae's skin is the color of rich, dark chocolate, and she wears a short-cropped natural hairstyle that illuminates her chiseled African facial features. She is a spunky, petite woman who does not hide her humble beginnings and is always dressed as if she were ready to attend a church service.

Ruthie Mae manages a team of fifteen loan officers. Her unit is responsible for generating new business, identifying new products, and providing a high level of service to customers. "The key to success in my role is balancing my time in the office with the need to be out in the field," she said. "I cover a pretty large area. Clients like to see you if they are going to give you their business. Then, of course, there's working with the back-office folks."

Ruthie Mae's parents, both of whom came from very poor backgrounds, separated when she was a baby. Having to leave school to work the tobacco fields as children, neither parent had completed elementary school. After the separation, her father lived with another woman in the community. However, her mother continued to have his children, even though he was fathering children with the other woman at the same time. Between the two women, Jonathan White fathered sixteen children. Ruthie Mae does not remember her father being around very much. Nor does she think her father provided any financial support to help raise her siblings and herself.

What does stand out in her mind, however, are the times her father would pile all eight of them in his car and take them for a joyride. Along the way he would always stop at the local dry goods store. Mr. White would go inside after telling his children to wait in the car. But Ruthie Mae, a child with a mind of her own, never listened. Instead, she would wait for a few minutes before following him into the store. Once inside, she would walk around the store, pick up bright red apples from a basket, grab a fistful of penny candies, and snatch up as many licorice sticks as her small hand could hold. She would then quietly put her bounty on the store's counter. The storekeeper would tally the price of her goodies on a brown bag. While he was adding things up, Ruthie Mae made sure to avoid eye contact with her father. Of course, she knew he would pay. He did not want people thinking he was not taking care of all his children. When the storekeeper would tell them the total cost of her pluckiness, Ruthie Mae would bolt through the store's door. Her father would come marching out of the store, holding the bounty, yelling and screaming all the way. Ruthie Mae, along with her brothers and sisters, did not mind hearing their father's rants, because they got to eat all the goodies on the way back home.

Ruthie Mae employed a number of tricks to get money out of her father; whatever small amounts he gave her she would always turn over to her mother. Lack of money was a big problem for the family. As a result, all the White children were working by the time they reached their eighth birthday. They toiled in tobacco fields, did yard work, cleaned white people's houses-whatever they could do to keep a roof over their heads. On occasion Ruthie Mae's paternal grandmother and uncle would help the family out, but they did not have much family stability either. Also, there seemed to be some estrangement between her mother and her father's family. Because of this tension, Ruthie Mae could not depend on her father's kinfolk for emotional or financial support.

Ruthie Mae often found herself in charge of her siblings, trying to take control of the chaos that surrounded them and the uncertainty life brought. When she was feeling overwhelmed by the circumstances, she would always sing the lyrics to her favorite gospel tune. That kept her going, especially the refrain, "and on thyself rely." At a young age she knew what it meant to rely on herself, and to have her six brothers and one sister depend on her as well. "I always thought of myself as the mother of my family, because I was the one who hugged and kissed them when they were sick or they got hurt or cried." Her own childhood, she remembers, was snuffed out by this added responsibility.

The elementary school Ruthie Mae attended was a one-room building with a stove in the middle. Pupils would sit on either side of it. There were no books, only a chalkboard that the teacher used infrequently. Most of the school day the children spent playing outside on a wooden swing set. Ruthie Mae recalled, "We didn't learn anything. I was in fourth grade when we transferred to a school in a building with rest rooms inside, and I was fascinated by that." In the new school the other students were reading. It was then that Ruthie Mae discovered she could not read. She did not master books until seventh grade, but by then her education faced a new impediment. Rather than having Ruthie Mae attend classes when she was in junior high school, Mrs. White insisted that Ruthie stay home to take care of her three-year old brother. At the time, she did not believe her mother valued education. "Mama's priority was to make sure we ate regularly." This was increasingly upsetting to Ruthie Mae. Fortunately, though, Ruthie Mae's seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Garrett, came to her rescue. She made a home visit to find out why Ruthie Mae's attendance was so irregular and found Ruthie Mae home babysitting. In order to get Ruthie Mae to come to class every day, Mrs. Garrett told her to bring her younger brother with her. "He disrupted the whole class, but Mrs. Garrett never said anything about it," Ruthie Mae said in a tone softened by admiration and appreciation.

High school was a turning point in Ruthie Mae's life. The principal, a real taskmaster, took a special interest in her. "I worked harder in all four grades in high school than I have ever done in my life," Ruthie Mae declared. Thrilled at the discovery of her own intelligence, Ruthie Mae carried books home every evening, devouring them late into the night. She also became a leader, and was selected as senior class president. But despite such success, Ruthie Mae was conscious of being excluded from the more popular students in school. Skin color and economic status split the students into two "tribes": one made up of the working-class kids who happened to be light-skinned; and the other made up of the kids who were poor and dark-skinned. Ruthie Mae's story is a real-life manifestation of the social dynamic portrayed in Spike Lee's School Daze, with its light-skinned, straight-haired Wannabes and dark-skinned, nappy-headed Jigaboos. Ruthie Mae wore a tam everyday to hide her "kinky and natty" hair.

In the twelfth grade, however, the social order shifted. "It was the year where the poor, black, kinky-haired, dark-skinned people took charge of the school," she recalled with evident pride. Ruthie Mae was elected class president. She realized you didn't have to be light-skinned with long hair to do well. "We could make it without all that. . . . We were smart too," she added. "We had the highest scores on all the standardized tests because we studied hard." The principal broached the subject of college with Ruthie Mae. He talked her mother into letting her apply to colleges and paid the application fees.

By this time, Ruthie Mae had acquired another guardian angel. In ninth grade she began working as a babysitter for the family of Mr. Nelson, a white lawyer in town. The Nelson family lived in an impressive two-story brick house, and Mr. Nelson drove a Cadillac, a rare extravagance in those parts. He first approached Ruthie Mae about part-time baby-sitting; over time, he increased his requests until she was able to stop cleaning the houses of other white families.

But whenever she went to baby-sit, there was little for her to do. "Most of the time I would get over there, and everybody would be sitting around watching TV, including him and his wife," she said. For her services, he paid her fifty cents more than the two dollars a week she had earned cleaning. On some weekends Ruthie Mae was allowed to stay over at the Nelson's to take care of the children. Occasionally, she accompanied them on family excursions. Instead of tiring household duties, Ruthie Mae was encouraged to do her homework.

At Ruthie Mae's house, her mother would turn off all the electric lights by eight o'clock in the evening to save on the electric bill. If Ruthie Mae had to study in the evening, Mr. Nelson would come to get Ruthie Mae so she could study at his house. Mr. Nelson would even help her with school assignments. The Nelson's home had a library filled with books. Ruthie Mae had never seen such a display of literature. Her mother was neither able to buy books, nor to read them. Ruthie Mae avidly devoured as many books as she could during her afternoons at the Nelsons. Her newly acquired knowledge was put to good use, as she began to get A's on all her assignments in school. Teachers commented in class about how she was blossoming intellectually.

Ruthie Mae's good grades enabled her to win full scholarships at four different colleges. She chose to attend a historically black college that also happened to be the college farthest away from her hometown. "I would have ended up being asked to come home to work on Saturdays picking tobacco to help out my family," she explained. Her initial plan was to major in education, so she could return to her rural community and teach. "I wanted to teach more than anything," she sadly admitted. However, family responsibilities took a toll on her college dream. Unable to student teach because she had to work part-time to help her mother provide for her younger siblings, Ruthie Mae changed her major to business. Attending classes and working, she still was on the honor roll all four years through college. Ruthie Mae married her college sweetheart the latter part of her sophomore year. But she divorced before graduating. A single parent at the age of twenty-two, she managed to graduate with honors that same year.

Immediately following graduation, she began her career in the financial industry as a bank teller.

Linda Butler
By the time Linda Butler turned sixteen, she was out on her own making a living. Linda's petite, fragile appearance is exaggerated by the high leather chair she sits in behind a massive dark mahogany desk. Her wood-paneled, classic but utilitarian office features a wall of windowpanes with a view of the other tall downtown buildings. Linda's pale, almost translucent white skin masks the resolve and perseverance it took to rise from a very poor and traumatic childhood to be the only woman at the senior executive level in a large utility company. She speaks with a strong and confident voice. She is finishing her first year as vice president of corporate affairs, a position held previously only by men; she is responsible for public information, public relations, and employee communications. "We're charged with reviewing everything that goes outside the company on a mass basis," she said, "to ensure employees adhere to company policy and company image."

Linda, an only child, was born in 1947 in rural Mississippi to poor working-class parents. Linda never knew her father. Her parents were divorced before she was born and her mother later remarried. Linda spent her childhood traveling from one small town to another with her mother and stepfather, an itinerant worker who found work where he could. They always lived in the poorest part of town, sometimes in a trailer. She has vivid memories of one of the small towns they lived in. "We stayed in a small cinder block house on the outskirts of town. We had no transportation. We had no telephone. We were poor. I remember the house because the floorboards had large cracks between them. If you dropped something, it would be gone forever. I lost a little five-and-dime bracelet in that house."

The rural communities in which Linda spent her early childhood were once part of the Cotton Belt that ran from Texas and southern Oklahoma to the Carolinas and northern Florida. Its hot weather was well suited to the growth of the cotton plant. But by the 1950s many rural whites were leaving farming to become industrial workers. Many with small farms had abandoned low-income farm life to work in local textile plants or other factories in the surrounding small towns. Mills offered an avenue of escape from the land that had failed them or that had been taken over by large-scale commercial companies. The textile industry became the bedrock of the Southern economy of the fifties and sixties.1 Families of the factory workers often lived in mill houses or mill villages built by the companies. These villages were worlds unto themselves, with four-room cookie-cutter houses featuring sand-plastered interior walls and white exteriors.2 But even this level of comfort was not available to Linda's family, as her stepfather could only find short-time jobs. Linda recalled one place where she lived: "There was a steel mill, a cotton plant, and a rubber plant. If you lived in that little town, that was all there was. It was a big union town and the workers would go on strike at the drop of hat."

Linda learned at an early age to take care of herself. "We moved a lot because of my stepfather's work. I like to refer to him as a 'tinker man.' I can remember one time moving over the Christmas holiday. When it came time to go to school on the first day after the holiday, my mother and stepfather were both working. So I stood outside our little house by myself and took the bus to school. I went into school and registered myself. I could read and I knew my numbers so they put me in first grade. I was five years old but told them I was six."

After her mother's death, seven-year-old Linda was left with her stepfather. Unable to care for her, he sent her off to live with relatives. She never saw him again. Linda grew up being shuttled between her grandparents and aunts and uncles. When she lived with her relatives, she did a lot of the household work: "I did most of the cooking, most of the washing, and most of the housekeeping. My aunt more or less had a holiday. I didn't really like it but these people were keeping me so I felt I should do something to repay them. I cannot remember after my mother died anyone in my family hugging me or showing emotion until many years after I was a married adult. We were a distant family. They took care of me when I was young because that was what you were supposed to do."

Linda had to grow up fast on her own. "I don't remember my mother much or my stepfather. All of my relatives were struggling, so I would stay with each one until they could no longer afford to take care of me. I don't remember getting encouragement to do anything. The entire time I was growing up, no one ever talked to me about college. No one even talked to me about finishing high school. A number of the women in my family had quit high school to get married and had children very, very early. So no one really said 'We expect you to do your homework. We expect you to finish school.' I've thought a lot about this, and I don't know if there's something you're born with inside that makes you want to be different, but I saw all of that and I said, 'I don't want this.' I wanted a better life. I wanted a decent house. And I never wanted to go back unless I did so on my own terms."

The itinerant life was hardly conducive to getting an education. In first grade alone, Linda went to four different schools. Most of her early education was in small, segregated rural schools. "I really don't remember the first time I saw a black child. In my early years, it was all whites." In the end, she attended sixteen different schools before she graduated from high school. She loved to read. "I would lose myself in books," she said. "I remember being so proud in the first grade right after that Christmas when I first started school. I was reading the thickest book in class while all the other children were in the 'skinny books.' Now looking back, it was an escape. The reading helped me realize there were different lifestyles out there and not just the one I was used to." Linda went through school wearing a cloak of shame. "I was a loner. I had moved around so much and was always the new kid. I was always uncomfortable. I really didn't want them to know how poor I was; I didn't have what everybody else did and I couldn't go places they went. So it was just easier not to get involved. Nobody knew that. There really were no supports. I think if I had told them I would've possibly gotten some more support." She paused, then added, "This is hard for me to share."

"There was never any thought of saying, 'I don't have lunch money.' You did something else at lunchtime instead of eating. In my senior year a teacher took some girls to one of the women's colleges in the state, but I wasn't able to go. I didn't have the money for the weekend and I didn't want to tell anybody. So I didn't go." These experiences left an indelible impression upon Linda, a lesson she keeps with her today: "I just have a real hard time understanding somebody who doesn't want to get out of that. One thing I get from my family is that we will never accept welfare. We'll starve on our own."

Linda was an intellectually gifted child but was never in a school long enough for teachers or counselors-or her relatives-to recognize it. "I would have started senior high school at twelve if I hadn't moved around so much. It got rough financially for my grandparents, so an aunt and uncle in South Carolina said I could come live with them. I didn't even tell them I was going to skip ninth grade. I just went ahead and registered myself for tenth grade. Even though I knew I wanted a better life, I still didn't go to college because at the time I graduated I was in a small high school. We had no career counseling. No one to tell me there were actually scholarships you could get. There were no community colleges." Linda added, "My family expected me to get married early and have kids even after I decided I wasn't going to do that. I was going to finish school."

There were no guardian angels for Linda. She was on her own. At sixteen, after graduating from high school at the top of her class, she left her aunt and uncle's home and went off on her own to the first big city she could reach. "I found a job as a part-time clerk but when I got down to personnel to fill out the forms, they realized how old I was and told me I had to get my parents to sign working papers. My uncle signed for me. After I got a full-time job there, I found a lady with two rooms to rent and I went to live with her and work. I didn't have a car so everything I did was by bus. I had a ride to work and back every day. But I enjoyed it. I was on my own. I wasn't making much money-I think about $200 a month-but I survived."

Even though Linda had the second highest IQ in her high school when she graduated, it was eight years before she ended up attending a state college at night to earn her degree. She paid her tuition from her meager earnings. "I got my first two years out of the way and designated management as my major. The quarter I took my first management course was also the quarter I took my first accounting course. I had a boring management instructor. But I loved accounting. It was like a puzzle with all these pieces that you have to find to put together and when you get through you have got the puzzle solved. I liked that aspect of it. I switched my major to accounting and got my degree."

The flashbacks of Ruthie Mae White and Linda Butler shatter many assumptions we hold about the early life circumstances of successful women: that they must come from middle-class backgrounds, with nurturing, supportive and intact families; that their careers were launched after a straightforward educational progression. Ruthie Mae and Linda are hardly unusual; their stories are representative of a percentage of the other women we interviewed. Raised in what we would call today "families at risk," many professional women-especially women raised in the rural South-have experienced childhoods marked by two or more of the following conditions: family violence, overwhelmed mothers, parental abandonment, neglect and abuse, and dire poverty. These women may have taken on their mother's responsibilities at an early age.

Black women raised in families of risk, in most cases, were among the poorest of the working poor, those defined by Andrew Billingsley as "families where at least one member is employed . . . [with] median incomes below the poverty line due to low wages. . . . Even with multiple earners, they are not able to move out of poverty."3 Their families, in most cases, were run by a single head of household, usually the mother. The median yearly income for rural blacks in 1960 was $845, compared to $2,484 for rural whites.4 With only a few exceptions, the women's parents had received less than a high-school education. Such early life situations were made more daunting for the black women because they also had to cope with growing up in a racist, caste-like society. Carol Stack, in her elegantly written Call to Home, states that "conditions of life in the rural South for poor black people had to be either swallowed whole or abandoned; people literally had to take it or leave it."5 Poor rural whites like Linda Butler, on the other hand, had the option of leaving the farms that failed them for low-paying mill jobs.

Yet Ruthie Mae and Linda share a profound sense of a lost childhood; both found that the freedom that flickers in childhood was soon extinguished. As another black interviewee said, "It seems like all of sudden I just grew up. I have to tell you, I can't remember much about my childhood. It seemed like I was always the one in charge of everything." Missing from narratives of such women are the tales of the usual activities girls engage in during adolescence. Instead, their accounts describe the adult roles and responsibilities assumed while still children. Self-parenting children-those in charge of taking care of themselves and their siblings- learned early on in their lives to be self-reliant, mature, and responsible.

The black women we interviewed often had outsiders-people from their community, church, or school system-who took an active interest in them and helped the girls cope with the harsh realities of everyday life. These "guardian angels" were not connected to the women through bloodlines or through family friendships. They offered support and provided them with resources. In some instances, they gave the young girls unconditional love. They helped to soften the conditions these women lived in throughout their childhoods, filling the void left by unavailable parents or extended family members unable to provide emotional support. Guardian angels may have swooped in to help at one critical moment, or they may have developed an ongoing relationship with the girl. Often the assistance they offered to the young woman gave the girl's family relief as well.

The white women who grew up poor did not talk about supportive guardian angels. Instead, many were like Linda, isolated and forced to fend for themselves. Unlike the black women, whose communities often cut across class lines because of racial segregation, poor white communities were often distant from middle-class white communities. The women talked of the shame of poverty and keeping it secret from others. Consequently, they had to cope differently with their circumstances. They knew they had to do it on their own. An important motivator among the women was a resolve to escape their impoverished environments.

The stories of Ruthie Mae White and Linda Butler convey the impact of gender, race, and social class on a young woman's life, but they also help us understand the two cultural contexts in which black and white women's lives are embedded: one the culture of resistance, and the other the culture of individualism. Like Ruthie Mae, the black women we interviewed were raised in a culture of resistance that has its genesis in the subordinate status of the African-American. Subordinate groups have consistently struggled to find ways to resist and fight systems of oppression in order to overcome dominance. Black women, in particular, according to historian Stephanie Shaw, "were encouraged and prepared to resist, wherever possible, the constraints the larger society sought to impose on them."6 The culture of resistance left a powerful imprint on the women's identities. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins broadly defines the characteristics of the culture of resistance as a legacy of struggle for family and community, an ethic of caring, self-definition, an oral tradition, and a dialectic of oppression and activism.7 We will return to this concept later in the book.

By contrast, and in common with the other white women we interviewed, Linda was reared in a culture of individualism. The idea of American individualism first appeared in the writings of French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville. While notions of individualism were historically rooted in patriarchy, early white feminists embraced individualism and leveraged it as an argument for their right to the vote and to self-actualization.8 Though a constant feature of U.S. culture, the intensity of individualism has varied over time. White women in our study came of age during a period in which individualism enjoyed a resurgence: the postwar 1950s and 1960s that produced the Me Generation. Robert Bellah and his team describe the culture of individualism as one that "encourages us to cut free from the past, to define our own selves, and to choose the groups with which we wish to identify."9

The stories of Ruthie Mae White and Linda Butler bear out strikingly separate cultural orientations. A poor black girl is encircled with support and encouragement. She is not taught shame because of her poverty. Instead, the community affirms her self-worth. She survives because of the collective support she receives. And she recognizes that when she succeeds, she must reach back to help others in her community. On the other hand, a poor white girl is isolated from the community. She must fend for herself. Her poverty is secretive and shameful. She learns she is responsible for herself and must literally pull herself up by her own initiative and hard work.

Joyce Canton

As director of marketing for a Fortune 100 consumer products company, Joyce Canton has learned "to stick to her guns" in an often dynamic and volatile business. Joyce's youthful appearance, blond curly hair, and blouse with a soft, ruffled neck belie the fact that she is a seasoned marketing executive who also held a managerial-level position in her previous job with another company. She brings to mind a younger version of Dixie Carter, a honey-toned mixture of charming femininity and cool professionalism.

At the time of her interview, Joyce was contemplating an assignment in Asia and confident about her career future. "I know that by taking an international assignment now I could potentially end up running a company in two to three years. I would be competitive for a general manager's position. I could also be competitive for a vice president position here because I will have picked up experience that a lot of my peers here don't yet have." Joyce's self-confidence stems from her early childhood. As an only child raised by her father after her mother's death, Joyce grew up in a solid middle-class neighborhood of Victorian homes in a town of only four or five major employers. Her hometown was in the western panhandle of Maryland, near the old Mason-Dixon line separating North from South and freedom from slavery. Joyce recalled, "My entire town was white. Very white. There was a minuscule black population and a minuscule Jewish population. The main division was whether you were Protestant or Catholic. Things were divided more by 'poor white trash from the wrong side of the tracks' than by racial lines. There just wasn't enough diversity in the town for race to even be an issue."

Not until Joyce took a trip to Mississippi as a young girl did she became aware of differences between blacks and whites. "Before that, I had the sense that most of the people who waited on you were black-whether it was the waiter at the country club or the housekeeper I saw at my parents' friends' house. In addition to seeing Mississippi's large proportion of black people, Joyce also recalled witnessing a civil rights riot. "We went down to where my grandmother lived-I guess around 1964 or 1965-and the National Guard was posted all over town. We thought this was a lot of fun, because we would see the big machine guns and the tanks. We raced around the tanks and jumped up and down. For a kid, this was exciting. I don't think I had any notion that there had been violence in the town or that windows had been smashed. I don't even remember if anyone was killed."

Her father's busy medical practice kept him away from home a great deal, especially after her mother's death. Joyce learned quickly to fend for herself. "I became fairly independent after my mother's death. I used to laugh that I had charge accounts when I was ten because my father didn't have an idea how to shop for clothes for me. I would go to Main Street, dawdle around, and buy my fall wardrobe. I signed the bill and they would send it to my father. I would take the clothes and when he got home, he would go through what I had purchased. If he really hated something, I'd take it back. I just took over at ten."

"I knew from that time I was never going to stay in my hometown. I truly do not have any one person I can point to or any one instance that made me realize that. It just became clear to me I was not going to stay there. I was not going to get married at eighteen to anybody that I knew in high school and have five babies, which probably 90 percent of the people I grew up with did. I knew I was going to college and that I would live in a big city." Joyce doesn't remember receiving any messages about her gender from her parents while she was growing up. "It's hard to judge, but I really don't remember getting a sense that my parents had different expectations for me because I was a girl. The thing I remember was what I imposed upon myself as a little girl. I was very much a little girl. I was not a tomboy. I was vocal about not wanting to wear pants. I wanted to wear my little patent leather shoes. I wanted to wear dresses, especially sundresses. I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to have little outfits. So I don't know if my parents passed that on to me or if I just somehow rather decided I wanted to be a classic little girl."

Joyce attended the public schools in her small hometown. "The only other alternative was Catholic school. I attended fairly traditional schools. My elementary school was really truly the old traditional brick schoolhouse." Joyce excelled in high school and became a leader in many school activities. "I was vice president of my class in my junior year and head of the newspaper for two years. I was in the band and in the French club. I was also in the honor society." She also worked part-time during her last two years of high school. "I wanted to go to work. I come from a family with a strong work ethic. Also, I had started looking at colleges and was pretty sure I was going to a private university. That was going to come with a fairly substantial price tag. I wanted to start to feel like I was going to put something toward maintaining myself."

She graduated salutatorian of her high school class. "There were two National Merit Scholars in my high school: I was one of them, and the other was a boy. So, for the most part, accomplishments-academic as well as who was class president or who ran for student council-were shared between boys and girls. It wasn't like the girls could only do certain things. There really wasn't much of a split. If anything, I got the impression that girls were smarter because other than the one boy, all of the other top students were girls." She went on to say, "I think I actually came out of high school with the impression that you could do a little bit of everything. I was probably naïve to believe there weren't any barriers. I knew I was going to to go to a good college, a private college. I was going to study communications and journalism and law."

Joyce didn't get much career counseling or help selecting a college from her high school counselors. "I remember going to my guidance counselor when I got my SAT scores. She handed me the Barron's Guide to Colleges and basically said, 'Match up your SATs with schools and that's where you should apply.' The way I ended up where I went was almost by a fluke. I truly did go through the Barron's Guide and looked for those colleges that had preparation for law school and any kind of journalism and communications programs." Joyce ended up attending an elite private college in the South. "I went to visit the campus and it was lovely, bucolic. It was very appealing to me."

College was an eye-opening experience for Joyce. "My college years were the most formative. I don't remember a lot about elementary school and high school. Probably there was something conscious about that, because I was determined put my small hometown behind me. In college, I became aware for probably the first time that people had grown up in various backgrounds and with varying degrees of privilege. I had gone to college thinking I had led a fairly privileged lifestyle because I was in a secure well-to-do professional family. Out in the big world I realized I had no clue what a prep school was before I went to college. I had never encountered people who had gone to one. It was a very different to find a class of people who had gone to such schools. They tended to be more white, especially white males."

"For the most part it was a fairly segregated environment. The university still had a fairly active fraternity and sorority system. There were black sororities and white sororities, black fraternities and white fraternities." Not only did Joyce get exposure to more diversity, she became, in her words, "a political junkie. My courses in public policy dealt with major social issues. I mean there was Busing 101-desegregation issues. There were courses on public housing policy, and on arts funding policy. As an academic experience it was formative in many ways. And I developed strong ties to many of the faculty and to others involved in politics."

Joyce left college thinking "that whatever career I chose I would be successful by the time I was thirty. I thought these things happened all the time and would come together very quickly. If you're talented, you're going to make it. Yes, you're going to make it right out of the box."
Like Ruthie Mae White and Linda Butler, Joyce Canton had to grow up fast. Her childhood, too, was shortened because of her mother's premature death. But Joyce's middle-class status buffered her from many of the harsh conditions experienced by Ruthie Mae and Linda. She was able to attend good schools in her middle-class neighborhood and went on to a private university. We found generally that the effects of early life disruptions were lessened for women with middle-class backgrounds.
Psychologically, though, Joyce was as isolated, if not more so, than Ruthie Mae or Linda. She, too, had to learn to be independent and to fend for herself. Her relatives did not play a prominent role in raising her after her mother's death. "The loss of a mother," says writer Hope Edelman, "represents a developmental challenge [for the daughter] . . . forcing her to take on responsibility for herself very quickly; she has to advance rapidly in her development."10 This was a continuing difference we found in the black and white women's early life narratives. White women, whether or not they survived at-risk environments, portrayed their families as largely insular; black women described much more expansive kinship ties and even what sociologist Carol Stack refers to as "fictive kin."11 Fictive kin is a unique element of African-American culture where non-blood relatives are called to "play mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, or cousin."
Colleen Powell
Colleen Powell cuts a striking figure in a gray suit and pale pink cashmere sweater. This is complemented by her crisp, precise way of speaking. Her petite figure, brown shoulder-length hair, and fair skin convey gentleness. But her gold, wire-rimmed glasses let you know she is a serious woman. After twenty years working in finance, the last eight of them in a Fortune 50 company, she seems unfazed by her accomplishments. On an international assignment in Latin America as corporate treasurer, she reports to the president of the Latin American Division. When the phone in her office rings, she picks up the receiver and engages in conversation in Spanish. She is also fluent in Portuguese.

The oldest of five children and the only girl, Colleen grew up "real poor" in Arkansas. "I would not characterize my childhood as a particularly happy childhood. As a matter of fact, it was a struggle," she said. Concentrating on getting out of poverty was the only way she could survive. Colleen's early life has proved to be the motivating force behind the goals she has established and risks she has taken as an adult. When she was twelve years old, her parents divorced. Her father was physically abusing her mother. Colleen's mother got as far from her husband as possible, but she was unable to take her children. Colleen learned about her mother's departure while at school. At the end of the school day, her seventh-grade teacher gave her a letter her mother had dropped off. Colleen was the only child her mother told. Colleen told her brothers, assuming an adult role as she did so, and effectively becoming their surrogate mother. Colleen did not see her mother again until she was eighteen years old.

"It was a very emotional experience for me," she somberly admitted. Soon after their father remarried a woman who also had five children from a previous marriage, she and her siblings found themselves living with their paternal grandmother. "It was difficult for him to take care of two households, so I think you can imagine which one he decided to take care of," she said. First abandoned by their mother, Colleen and her brothers were then abandoned by their father. "I was the one who took care of everybody, and I still do."

Colleen has fond memories of her grandmother: "She was the sweetest, most self-sacrificing, loving person I think I have ever met." Colleen's grandmother earned her living as a domestic, but she did not earn enough to take care of five children. To help her grandmother make ends meet, Colleen worked two jobs from the time she was thirteen years old, cleaning houses, taking in laundry, and working in a neighborhood youth program. "The money I made during the week I gave to my grandmother to help support my siblings. The money I made on the weekends was mine."

Colleen attended segregated schools. All her teachers were black. They were all supportive, pushing their students to do their very best and taking a personal interest in them. Colleen did well in elementary school, but the trauma in her personal life set her back for a while. "I sort of dropped back; then, when I got into high school, I refocused." Refocus she did. She made the top ten in her graduating class. Her favorite subject was math. She took all the accelerated courses. Not one to be a wallflower, Colleen was president of the Thespian Troupe, sang in the school choir, and was a member of the honor society.

An anchor of support for Colleen was her godmother, Donna Glover, a single, middle-aged woman who was a neighbor of Colleen's grandmother. Ms. Glover immediately "took a liking" to Colleen when she moved to her grandmother's house. First Ms. Glover invited Colleen to her home for Sunday supper. Not long afterward, she adopted Colleen as her goddaughter. She took her self-assigned job as the young woman's guardian angel quite seriously. She invited Colleen to different cultural events, exposing her to the opera, the symphony orchestra, and to what Colleen calls "the better things in life." Their relationship even continued after Ms. Glover moved to another state. Soon after she moved, she paid for a round-trip train ticket during Colleen's summer vacation. "My godmother's goal was to make me a very well-rounded person. I got exposed to a different kind of life, one that I ordinarily would have missed."

By her senior year in high school, Colleen was uncertain about what she was going to do. She needed to work. College was not on her radar screen, at least not for a couple of years. "I didn't think about it, not until twelfth grade. Who was I going to think about it with? Nobody!" There was no money for tuition. Shirley Ford, a high school counselor, encouraged her apply to a special work-study program in the local junior college geared toward preparing students to enroll in a four-year university. Colleen was easily accepted. After being in the program for a year, Ms. Glover decided it was time for a change. "Godmother told me flat out, 'You're just playing around here. This is no challenge for you. You are going somewhere else.'" While Colleen was thinking about possible colleges to attend, Ms. Glover suggested that she apply to her own alma mater, one of the historically black colleges. To support her goddaughter's application, she wrote a letter of recommendation. Colleen was accepted and received a full four-year scholarship.

Colleen returned home from college only for an occasional holiday, taking classes year round and completing her coursework a semester ahead of her classmates. Most of her time was spent studying, and it showed. She made the Dean's List every year. College courses gave her an opportunity to discover her intellectual passion: economics. She was the first woman to take courses in the college's Department of Business Administration and Economics. "Everybody told me how tough it was going to be, especially for a woman. I received an A on the first exam, an A on the second and an A on the third. I started thinking, 'Maybe this isn't quite so tough.' " She worked in the student enterprise group, where she learned how to develop her own business.

Attending a historically black school broadened Colleen's perspective. "I was exposed to black people who had money. I had never had this experience before; their outlook on life was very different from mine." In addition to learning about diversity among blacks, Colleen's social life took a new twist. Through her pre-med college roommate she met, fell in love with, and became engaged to a young man who was attending medical school. On weeknights they studied together. On weekends they went to movies, played cards, or attended parties given by other medical students. Colleen found herself having to decide between two potential lifestyles: being a doctor's wife and living life in relative comfort, or carving out a career for herself. In the end, she decided to concentrate on her own career, breaking off the engagement. In retrospect she is content: "I am fortunate that I did not get married at that time. I think I would have been very unhappy in the position of doctor's wife."

The dean of the college took an interest in Colleen, often talking to her about her future career. At the time, her plan was to continue with school and get a doctorate in economics. She was not sure of what she wanted to do after getting the doctorate. The dean had a different view. "I remember him saying, 'That is nice, but I can tell you that an M.B.A. is a more marketable degree than a doctorate in economics.'" Armed with an undergraduate degree in business economics and outstanding scores on the Graduate Record Exam, Colleen applied to several top-tier business schools. She was accepted to all of them. The Sloan School at M.I.T. even wrote asking her to apply. She attended her first choice, a top business school renowned for its program in finance.

Marilyn Paul
A marketing executive in the food division of a very large Fortune 100 consumer products company, Marilyn Paul markets household products common to many American cupboards. The formality of her corporate office is tempered by all kinds of colorful wind-up toys, gadgets, and trinkets, and packages of the products she has managed and marketed for the company. A slight, well-manicured, articulate woman, Marilyn described herself as "intellectually ferocious." She fills a room with her self-confidence and is being groomed to head the entire food division. "I manage $350 million of the business, I have twenty-seven people in my organization, and my position is three levels below the president. I'm sort of a functional specialist, with responsibility for all of the marketing of the brands in my division as well as some responsibility for a number of other functional areas in the division. My job consists of 50 percent marketing and 50 percent business management. I travel two to three weeks a month. I'm in the plants. I'm with my customers. I'm with consumers. I spend a lot of time with people who either make, use, or buy my products. A lot of my time is spent in meetings resolving issues. Four months out of the year, I'm doing serious planning, whether it be strategic plans for the next five years or short-term operating budget plans."

Marilyn grew up in the affluent suburbs of Connecticut during the early sixties. Because of her father's corporate career, Marilyn and her five brothers and sisters lived in many different suburbs while she was young. "My father was a corporate executive with an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. We always belonged to a country club. Houses were on big lots. It was a very affluent community rife with conspicuous consumption, and enormously competitive." A family's vacation plans, routinely printed in the local newspaper, were another indicator of wealth and status. "There were very explicit expectations about behavior. It was a very small, insular world. There were Catholics and there were Protestants, but there was no one else. Very Waspy. Very preppie."

However affluent, Marilyn's early childhood was emotionally traumatic. She grew up watching a younger, beloved sister slowly die from polio. Her mother was consumed with the tragedy. At the same time, her father's rising corporate career necessitated frequent family moves. "I remember the time I spent in school from fourth to eighth grade as just horrible years in terms of external socialization. The towns we moved to weren't friendly. It was just enormously painful. I was suffering from having lost my sister. Going through that experience-losing a younger sister-made me forge a closer relationship with my other brothers and sisters. Having the experience of not being accepted by other children when we moved made me withdraw a lot. I began to accept what my mother had said about the world being harsh. I internalized that perspective. I knew if I couldn't be accepted socially, I'd have to be smarter. I'd have to be better. And for a long time I used my intelligence as a weapon. I could always outperform other people. I retreated to thinking, books, and learning."

Marilyn's mother, though college-educated, centered her life around her children. "My mother worked outside the home before she had her children but then, with six children, she was enormously busy. She is an extraordinarily intelligent woman, well educated. But she was close to shattered when my younger sister died." Marilyn believes she got her intellectual fervor from her mother but she did not want to be like her mother when she grew up. "My mother has good reason to be the way she is, but I did not want to be like her-always waiting for catastrophe. We moved many, many times when I was growing up. I'm not sure my mother wanted to move each time. But my father's career dictated a lot of moving."

It was Marilyn's father who was interested in her achievements when she was growing up. A celebrated World War II hero, her father graduated from business school and went on to an impressive but uneven corporate career. As a young girl, Marilyn rejected the passive attitude she witnessed in her mother and identified with her father's take-control, take-charge attitude. "My father got on with his life more, and he had more outside the home than my mother did. He was more upbeat. Even though he wasn't there much, he was more accessible emotionally. You know it surprises me, of all my siblings, I'm most like my father, who was a corporate executive." She added, "My father and I have always been very close. We became even closer when I was in college, when I had a difficult time."

Her dad also gave Marilyn her first awareness of business. "I remember my father always having the products around from companies he worked with and I would ask him questions about them. When I was in high school, my dad would have dinner and then work after dinner. I knew what my father did."

Marilyn doesn't remember getting any messages about being a woman when she was growing up. "My mother spoke very little about what it meant to be a woman. But I remember, though, my mother had enormous difficulty when my older sister went to law school. My father was as interested in his daughters' achievements as in his sons. But my mother was really taken aback when my sister wanted to become a lawyer-because it was so out of her context. I think in some ways it was a violation of what she thought as possible for her and so she couldn't understand it. My father never set limits. He never gender-typed his kids." Marilyn went on to say, "The most important thing my mother communicated to me was an enormous love for education. She placed a high value on it. What I cherish most about my mother is her intellectual curiosity and her love of books and of learning."

Growing up in an upper-middle-class family in the suburbs meant her neighbors were white and family activities and social events took place with other white friends and family members. Marilyn bluntly stated, "We were among the upper class-all white. I did not meet anybody who was even Jewish until I went to college." Her parents' lives away from home were also monoracial. Her father, as a corporate executive, worked with other white men in prestigious, well-paying firms. "Race just wasn't there. There were plenty of blacks in my town. We had a black maid, but racial interaction wasn't part of your life. I was never taught to think those people were equal, but I was also never taught to hate."

If race did not seem to play a significant role in the family's life and in Marilyn's identity, religion most certainly did. "I'm Irish German Catholic," Marilyn volunteered. "Even though Vatican II occurred in 1964, we were raised with strict classical Catholicism. My mother converted to Catholicism when she married my father. Everybody was Catholic in the town we lived in when I was very young. It was when I left that town that I became aware of being part of an ethnic group and of being Catholic. That's how I first identified myself, as a Catholic. My mother imbued in us a real respect for other people and a real sense of values. I also learned that there was right and there was wrong."

Marilyn attended parochial schools in the early years of elementary school. "I don't remember much about what I learned in school. I remember the nuns were just overwhelming, domineering." Later she attended public schools, because her mother felt Catholic schools were "intellectually stifling." The affluent public schools she attended in the neighborhood had only a sprinkling of black students.

"My academic performance was stronger than anybody's until I went to college. I was a phenomenal performer all through junior high and high school. I was always into books but in seventh and eighth grade I began to love school, to love learning. I went into history and social studies and I absolutely adored it. My teachers loved me because I was smart and responsive. I mean, I just sucked up the information. I finally came into my own." Marilyn believes she paid a price for being too smart at a time when girls were not expected to excel academically. "It probably made me more of an anomaly to be this smart and as out front about it. I always knew there was this social cost, of not fitting in, but I couldn't not learn and excel. It was just too much fun to learn, and at some level, I just couldn't repress that kind of intellectual curiosity. I needed control and to be visible." Marilyn was in advanced classes and graduated second in her high school class. She was also active in student government and school clubs. She remembers having two diametrically different visions for her life: "I always imagined that I would get married and have kids or that I would be president of the United States. Seriously, I never quite knew how that would all work. But I had these two kinds of conflicting visions, never putting them together. I really did think I could be president of the United States."

Going to college was taken for granted. There was also little debate about what college she would attend. Marilyn was accepted into every Ivy League school she applied to during her senior year. She attended her favorite of the schools and majored in sociology, which she loved. For the first time, she became conscious of gender-related issues in her life. The women at her newly coed college were excluded from some of the all-male campus clubs. Women were, in her words, "still being imported" on the weekends from other campuses. Similar to her high school, her college was predominantly white; she had little interaction with black students. "The lines were very hard to cross." Marilyn was never able to break through the cliques shaped by old prep school alliances. She was largely apolitical, and was not active in campus groups.

One bright spot during college was selling ads for a student publication. "When I was in college, there was a student-run publication and in it we placed ads from corporations. For two summers I went out and I knocked on doors and got business people to buy ads. I liked doing it very much." But it was not until the end of college that Marilyn fully realized she "really would have to work. I was probably a senior in college before it really occurred to me that I was going to have to support myself. That was clearly an expectation from my parents. And I wasn't dating anybody. But it really just sort of hit me like a ton of bricks. I had never internalized that fact." Her success in selling ads spawned an interest in business, but she still was not certain what she wanted to do. Colleen Powell and Marilyn Paul are among the highest-ranking managers we interviewed. Educated at two of the top business schools in the country and at the peak of their careers, it would seem as if they have always been on a level playing field. Many whites often assume, when seeing two professional women at the same level, one black the other white, that they have traveled a similar path over the course of their lives. That race does not make a difference. We know better. These two women's backgrounds differ not just because of race, but because of the intersection of race and class. Colleen grew up poor in a family at risk, in the rural South, abandoned by her mother when she was quite young. Colleen's early life is reminiscent of Ruthie Mae White's experiences. Marilyn was raised in an affluent, upper-class family in the suburbs of the Northeast. Her father was a high-level business executive and prominent community figure. Her mother was a well-educated woman who decided to be a homemaker.

While the commonalities between Colleen's and Marilyn's professional lives are clear, what remain truly incongruent are their early life experiences. These two women's paths would not have crossed during their childhood. There would have been no friendships, no familiarity, and no common ground to prepare them to communicate and to be genuine colleagues as adults. Such a gap in frame of reference often exists among professional women who otherwise seem to be on a par. The different social locations of poor black women and upper-middle-class white women set up subordinate and superior self-perceptions-and relationships-among colleagues. We will return to this theme in later chapters.

Table of Contents


Part I: Flashbacks
1: Lost Childhoods
2: Their Fathers' Daughters
3: Comfortable Families, Uncomfortable Times
4: Executives in Training

Part II: Flashpoints
5: Breaking In
6: Fitting In
7: Barriers to Advancement
8: Climbing over the Barriers
9: Making Change
10: Work Isn't Everything

Part III: The Self and The Other
11: The Racialized Self
12: Images of Other

Appendix A: The Women
Appendix B: Life History Interviews
Appendix C: National Survey
About the Authors

What People are Saying About This

Price M. Cobbs

"In this original and powerful work, Bell and Nkomo lay bare the high price that women, and particularly black women, pay in order to succeed in the competitive, take-no-prisoners culture of corporate America."
—Price M. Cobbs, M.D., Psychiatrist, and Founder and President, Pacific Management Systems

Steve Reinemund

"The stories in Our Separate Ways show clearly that we can't expect to create an equal playing field in corporate America if the price remains so high for all those who aspire to achieve."
—Steve Reinemund, President and Chief Operating Officer, PepsiCo, Inc.

Derrick Bell

"Finally, a book that gives vibrant voice to the unique experiences of black women in corporate America. Through their tight research and engaging prose, Ella Bell and Stella Nkomo reveal that race continues to influence professional relationships between black and white women, despite their shared subordinate status vis-à-vis white men. Here are dramatic illustrations of why stereotypes about black women are worth combating-not only as a matter of simple justice, but because of their corrosive effect on the bottom line."
—Derrick Bell, Visiting Professor, New York University Law School

Douglas T. Hall

"Through Our Separate Ways, I was privileged to receive an insider's view of the personal and work worlds of African-American executive women that, until now, has been unavailable to me. The authors' insights break new ground for theory and practice at the intersection of race, gender, and career development."
—Douglas T. Hall, Director, Executive Development Roundtable, and Professor of Organizational Behavior, School of Management, Boston University

Scotty King

"This book is full of wisdom, pain, triumph, and practical solutions. Those of us who have stormed the glass ceiling will identify with the stories of these pioneering leaders. More important, we can learn about the power of solidarity from the experiences of our black sisters who face the 'concrete wall.'"
—Scotty King, Managing Director, Salomon Smith Barney

Billye Alexander

"Corporate America would be more successful if managers recognized and addressed the issues of race and gender in their organizations. Our Separate Ways captures these conflicts from both personal and business standpoints. This book provides an excellent road map."
—Billye Alexander, Senior Vice President, Sears, Roebuck and Company

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