Kimberly L. Bailey had a few butterflies, but the light conversation that the smiling woman made as she escorted her to the conference room made her feel a little less nervous. By the time the twentysomething Bailey sat facing the panel of three a White man, a White woman and a Black woman--she was ready for her interview with the large, highly regarded insurance company. What she didn't expect, however, was the icy reception she got from the sister.
"The two Whites were very pleasant, smiled as we talked, and looked at me," says Bailey, now a pension-program representative for the California State Teachers' Retirement System in Sacramento. "But the Black woman never smiled, only looked at me once, and read from a paper any questions she had for me. She was never rude or disrespectful, but it was almost as if she were intentionally trying not to connect with me. I was told she would be my immediate supervisor if I were hired. I didn't get the job. I thought I had interviewed well, and I know I was qualified, but I remember walking away from the interview wondering if the Black woman was jealous or insecure and just didn't want to work with me. I've never forgotten that experience."
Bailey's experience is one that's often repeated, not only in conference rooms across America but also in dorm rooms and classrooms. As far back as childhood, most of us have known sister-haters, or have done our own share of hating. Whether it was that girl in high school with the long hair and the big legs who got all the attention, or the trophy diva who snagged the great catch, or the sister with the M.B.A. who landed a job that put her in the six-figure league, women who seem to have more or to have it better--better education, better man, better looks, better opportunities--have always been targets of our collective jealousies and resentments. But now that we're settling in the corporate workplace in greater numbers than ever before, we have a new stage on which to play out our dramas. There the stakes are even higher because the rewards can be so lucrative, involving as they do money, privilege and perks. To get ahead, we're acting out with behaviors such as not speaking, withholding promotions or information, backstabbing and finger-pointing.
That kind of behavior isn't surprising when it comes from Whites--in fact, we almost expect it. Think bullied girl Stacie J. from The Apprentice. But when Black women in a predominantly White environment dish it out to one another, we're surprised and doubly hurt. We expect, maybe unrealistically, that because we have the common bond of race and gender, we will automatically have each other's back.
"We've moved away from the mythology of Black women's supporting one another at work because we're now in these corporate environments where it's much more competitive and individualistic," says ESSENCE career columnist Ella Edmondson Bell, an associate professor of business in the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. "There is literally room for only one [Black female] at the top, and we've all gotten caught up in deciding that 'I'm going to be that one.'" Companies may talk about teamwork, says Bell, but the reality is that it's the individual who gets ahead, sometimes at the expense of other individuals she is working with.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE WORKPLACE
Given that we spend a huge chunk of our waking lives at work, it's no wonder the office becomes an arena for some of our most intense personal dramas. "There are so few places where Black women feel affirmed and supported," says Bell. "We're competing for men and for the job, and we often feel unloved and alone. And when you're feeling alienated and wounded, guess what? You may go after that sister on the job who looks better than you, who's got that man or that professional title." That animus can be directed toward peers, superiors or subordinates.
Take the case of Frances Ruffin, a copywriter who was working at a small publishing company in the Northeast that had merged with a larger one. "I was very supportive of a Black female manager in the company who was worried about losing her job with the merger," Ruffin says. "As a result of the company's downsizing, I had revised a brochure that this woman took with her to a sales meeting. She made a point of phoning me from the meeting to say the sales staff hated it. This turned out to be a lie. I later learned that the staff actually loved it, and soon realized that this manager often gave me misinformation about things and lied a lot." That kind of behavior, whether caused by insecurity over their own positions or feeling threatened by another sister's skills, is increasingly showing up among Black women in the workplace.
"My Black female boss did less to promote me than any of the White bosses I ever worked with," says Tracy Samms (not her real name), a producer at a national radio news station. "She [the boss] was a senior producer who came up the hard way, when there were few Blacks in the newsroom. She didn't want anyone to think she was giving me special privileges because we were both Black. The thing is, once I got out from under her I was promoted twice in one year by a White woman who had no fear of giving me an opportunity."
At the heart of that fear are the psychic wounds of race and history, explains Joy DeGruy-Leary, Ph.D., an assistant professor of social work at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. "We have been conditioned to see each other as a threat--it's part of our being socialized in a racist society," she says. "There's this feeling that there can only be one or two of us in these corporate positions, so we're not collectively unified. As a Black woman, you always have the fear that you can be replaced by another Black woman--and the other woman may have better skills or a better education." Add to this vulnerability all our issues around being women in general--How well liked am I? How well dressed? Do I have a man? Is my house big enough?--and we have the potential for explosive conflicts between Black women at work.
Sometimes the sister-hating at work is more subtle and indirect, but painful nonetheless. Some women will simply go out of their way to avoid being seen in the company of other Black women. "They view associating with other Blacks as a liability," contends Ruffin, who remembers working with a senior Black woman at a large publishing company who actually refused her invitation to lunch by saying, "Let's not be seen together." "I was shocked," says Ruffin. "I thought, If Whites can be friends at work and help each other out, why can't Blacks?" Samms argues that it's "Black people who have a problem with nepotism in the workplace. Whites don't. We're so afraid of losing these positions that we operate from a place of fear and not from a place of power."
THE NEW BIG HOUSE
DeGruy-Leary, who lectures often on post-traumatic slave syndrome, the phrase used to explain how much of today's dysfunctional Black behavior is rooted in the trauma of slavery, equates the sister-hating done by some Black women in the corporate arena to that of an antebellum overseer on the plantation, "One of the ways many Blacks in the workplace think they will be accepted by the boss--by Whites is to act like an overseer," DeGruy-Leary contends. "They want Whites to think they're part of the team, so they don't associate with other Blacks. They believe it's a negative and could run counter to moving up. And by not associating, they think they'll be the favored one among White folks."
In some ways the American corporation is the new big house, where "good life" job perks like expense accounts, first-class travel, stock options, year-end bonuses and six-figure incomes have resulted in crabs-in-the-barrel competition among corporate Blacks. And while some favoritism and butt-kissing probably goes on in pink- and blue-collar jobs, advancement in the corporate sector seems to indeed turn on a more complicated axis of interpersonal relationships, which, DeGruy-Leary argues, Black folks don't always understand. "One of our biggest problems is that we take everything personally," she says. "It's not personal for Whites. They'll cut your throat, and then want to play a round of golf with you. They don't understand why we get so upset. But we go into these jobs looking for friends, and feel hurt and betrayed when the person creating difficulties for us at work looks like us"--namely, another Black woman.
Frankie Hodges found this out the hard way. She was fired from a small medical-technology firm after, Hodges says, a Black female colleague spent months undermining her either by taking credit for Hodges's work or by giving misinformation that made her work look bad. Hodges had been hired to manage the electronic-data interchange department for the company, and her colleague trained people to use the software. "This woman would always say, 'You know, we sistas gotta stick together,' but that was a joke," Hodges recalls. "She spent so much time kissing up to the White female director--even moving onto the woman's same street--that the director ended up giving her my job! I was made a technical representative and then fired because the director thought I was at odds with this woman. It was one of the worst experiences of my life," concedes Hodges, now a consultant for the Houston-based Accenture consulting firm. "Believe me, my guard is now way up when it comes to trusting Black women at work."
Three Black women were the culprits ganging up on Francyne Martin when she started working for a paper-products company based in the South. "During my first days I'd consciously go to the sisters expecting them to show me the ropes," says Martin. "But no matter what I needed, no one ever had an answer or was helpful, and I could never understand why. Then I realized that I wasn't considered one of 'them' because I had been hired from the outside and not from within the company." After a month on the job, Martin's boss, a White male, told Martin that a group of her peers had given him a laundry list of things they thought she was doing badly at work. "I found out that the 'group' that reported me were the three sisters," Martin says. Fortunately, Martin's boss thought her work was fine and paid no attention to the report. "After ten years I'm still with the company and the same boss," says Martin, now assistant manager of community programs. "One of the Black women was unexpectedly transferred, one quit, and the other was fired."
But given the day-to-day pressures of a demanding job, even a sister with the best intentions may find it hard to be altruistic toward a new colleague. Samms, the news producer who was miffed that her Black female boss didn't promote her, says Black women shouldn't automatically expect other Black women to support them. Ironically, now that she has moved up the corporate ladder, Samms can sound like a bit of a hater herself. "I definitely give advice and help to young Black women when I can," she says, "but I can't be every Black woman's mentor. This may come across as callous, but the truth is, trying to respond to every Black female who wants you to show her the ropes is draining."
Sometimes feelings like Samms's are rooted in generational differences that should be respected, says Bell. "Younger sisters often think older Black women have bought into the system, so they may not seek them out for help," she says, "while the senior Black women often think younger women are whiners who don't realize how good they have it compared to how things used to be. Both groups need to think beyond their own little boxes and try to understand the position of the other."
'WE'RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.'
In her 30-plus years as a successful corporate player, it has never occurred to Deborah Rochelle to compromise her sense of sisterhood to get ahead. Quite the contrary. As one of the few Black women working in the White, male-dominated human-resources consulting industry, Rochelle says she was always glad to see other Black women whenever she ran across them in her field. This attitude paid off when she took a job at Wells Fargo Bank in Los Angeles four years ago as estate-business manager for the institutional trust group. Her task was to give the group more of a consulting focus, though she came in with no background in banking. There was a Black female group vice-president, however, who became indispensable in helping Rochelle navigate the new terrain. "She became my right-hand person," Rochelle says. "We knew each other from the industry and were excited to be working together." There was also a Black male manager whose input Rochelle cultivated, and he, too, became a key player on her team.
Rochelle says that whenever she saw other Blacks on the job she would introduce herself, spend time with them outside of the office, sometimes going to lunch, other times in after-work social settings. She understood that to be successful she had to first secure the cooperation of everyone, which meant forming alliances and having allies among those below her as well as those above her on the corporate chain--Black and White alike. "The nature of consulting is that you build relationships with a client," she says. "I'm the kind of person who reaches out, and my attitude is, 'Look, we're all in this together.' There were certainly times when the three of us my two Black managers and I--would get together and laugh about what White folks might think about our hanging out with one another. But we didn't care. It was about being successful, making money and having fun."
Though such behavior is often considered risky by those with the "overseer" mentality, DeGruy-Leary says Rochelle and her colleagues were right on. "We spend too much time at work worrying about what White people might think," she says, "when the truth is, Whites view it as our problem when we have conflicts with each other on the job. It's the old blaming of the victim. We're viewed as dysfunctional, can't get it together, and this eventually boils down to whether or not we're seen as competent."
Rochelle was successful enough to retire from corporate life nearly two years ago at age 52. She had been making $186,000 a year and thought she had had some fun. Along the way, she had mentored many Black women. "I realized I was successful in my career because I had people who had mentored me," she acknowledges. She was also successful because she played to her strengths, two of which are being Black and being female. And because she viewed these as assets, she instinctively viewed those colleagues who looked like her to be assets too. As any smart and successful manager knows, you always work with your assets, not against them. Audrey Edwards is the senior writer at ESSENCE.
RELATED ARTICLE: An affinity for success.
How one company countered the corporate culture of separatism
Competition in the corporate workplace is tough enough without the infighting. But how do we begin to interact with each other more effectively? One way may be to develop a proactive network of support in the workplace--an affinity group--that can empower its members.
Sandie Anderson, Ph.D., leader of the Black Women's Development Network (BWDN), an affinity group in Procter & Gamble's research and development division, says that's what happened in 1984 when "16 courageous women" developed a plan, garnered the backing of senior management, and launched the BWDN. Members support each other by welcoming and mentoring new Black women staff members and helping one another with career planning and goal setting. The group also hosts career- and personal-development workshops and technical forums for its members.
"The key principle that governs us is truly sisterhood," says Anderson, a section head project leader for P&G Pharmaceuticals. "Respect in our relationships is part of our mission. These new women are coming in with fire in their belly, and they want to accomplish a lot. And we're determined to ensure that that fire doesn't go out."
Anderson says that organizing an affinity group is not for the faint of heart. "Some women will drop out for fear of possibly losing their jobs," she says. "It always starts out a little clandestine, with two or three people getting together off- site--in somebody's home, at a bar or whatever--so that they can create a strategy for how they can connect with the nontarget group."
She offers this advice to women interested in organizing an affinity group:
Identify a clear objective. The organization must be able to communicate its purpose. The objectives of BWDN are to empower themselves through technical mastery and networking, and to focus on recruiting, retention and advancement. Some groups, however, may want systemic changes in how the corporation functions. Determine what your group is about.
Devise a plan. Identify how the organization will help sisters and how it will help the company, which, after all, wants to increase the bottom line. Most companies recognize the value of diversity, but the group has to make and articulate a business case for itself.
Align with a sponsor. Seek a sponsor who can advocate for the group among senior management. The support of senior people can be critical--your group may eventually need a budget, space and time for meetings, or access to other resources that only they can approve. The sponsor doesn't have to be Black or a woman, but he or she does have to care about your group's issues.
--JANNETTE J. WITMYER
ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE VANCE
COPYRIGHT 2005 Essence Communications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group