Sandra Finley

(WOMENSENEWS)–The survey will take three years and involve over 300,000 people. When it is finished, it’s designed to tell the world what black women think it will take to become leaders in the 21st century.

More important, the 31-year-old League of Black Women, which is conducting the survey, hopes the findings can be used to boost thefortunes of black women, who have persistentlylagged behind other minority women in attaining higherpaying jobs and positions of socialinfluence.

“We are seeking information about the important attributes necessary to compete and enjoy sustained leadership,” says Sandra Finley, president of the Chicago-headquartered organization. “It’s not just about corporate America; it’s about where you choose to lead. Given that our ambitions have grown, we need the benefit of better tools and resources that allow us to work faster, have more reach and be more effective with less effort. Right now, we have the dreams but don’t have the resources or collective knowledge to accomplish them.”

“Joyful living” is another primary goal of the league. “For the past 30 years we focused on our career. Now it’s on what you do in life and a career is a part of your life,” says Finley.

Spurred by 2003 Findings

A July 2003 survey by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave the league’s work a greater sense of urgency and further emphasized the importance of conducting the leadership study.

The commission found that at 7.5 percent of the total work force, black women were the largest group among women of color. Yet, they had made the least gains since 1990. Black women’s 41 percent gain in total employment, for instance, was dwarfed by the 100 percent gain by Latinas.

In management ranks, meanwhile, black women hold about 3 percent of all positions–an increase of 75 percent. While that gain may sound impressive, it begins to shrivel when contrasted to the 130 percent gain by Latinas and the 135 percent gain by Asian women. Meanwhile, black women continue to hold a disproportionate number of lower paying clerical or nursing and healthcare positions.

Dealing with the Twin Demons

While the league’s survey through its research will help to identify the “barriers to opportunity” facing black women in the workplace, many black women have their own ideas about what may standing in the way of their obtaining and sustaining leadership positions.

Sonia Alleyne, career and lifestyle editor for Black Enterprise magazine, thinks part of the problem is the lack of mentors for black women. “Having a mentor is most important,” she says. “A mentor can show you the unwritten rules of the organization–who to talk to, who has real power.”

Knowing corporate culture is vital component in making the ascent up the corporate ladder, yet many say that black women often don’t focus on the latest office power play. Instead, they find their attention diverted to fighting the twin demons of racism and sexism.

“As black women, we are dealing with so many ‘isms–race, gender–a lot of us feel the need to overcompensate or disprove the assumptions and it’s played out at work,” says Charisse Jones, journalist and coauthor of the 2003 book, “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America.”

For example, Jones believes that, in an attempt to counteract a widely held stereotype that black people are lazy, black women often work longer hours just to prove that they are not. Also, according to Jones, black women are often treated as affirmative-action tokens and this can compel some to feel they must prove themselves worthy and take on too many tasks often at the expense of their mental and physical health.

“Because of our own insecurity and biases we are doing a lot of work without getting compensated financially or receiving a promotion or recognition,” says Jones.

Alleyne also believes that black women must become more assertive. “We have to overcome fear,” says Alleyne. “People who are true leaders take risks. Women are less assertive. Women tend to ask permission first before doing things. This indicates you are not sure. If you have a problem, you should just present it and say: ‘This is the case. This is how to fix it. And this should be the result.'”

Jones believes that black women may have more difficulty having their views accepted than other women. Too often, she says, when a black woman speaks up, “she is perceived to have an attitude, a chip on her shoulder, not a team player,” says Jones. “We often have to tone down who we are. We don’t speak up even if we have something to say.”

Since success is predicated on building and sustaining relationships, concentrating solely on getting the job done could be detrimental to the health of one’s career, says Alleyne. “We can’t be consumed about just doing the job or meeting a deadline; people have to know who you are.”

An important networking strategy can be developing “sister circles,” at work says Jones. “They will help figure out how to address challenges and find out if others are experiencing the same thing,” she says. For example, if a black woman does not receive the promotion or the opportunity she believes she deserves, the sister circle “can help figure out what’s going on and if you should challenge it,” she says. “You get advice from people who understand the particular culture.”

Carla Thompson is free-lance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

For more information:

League of Black Women:

Shifting – The Double Lives of Black Women in America:
based on the African American Women Voices Project: