Equal but Separate: Black Women in the Workplace

Genine Edwards was an exceptional high school student. Her grades could have easily granted her entry into any college that she applied herself to. And yet, in her senior year at Midwood High School, it was drilled into her head that her future was headed towards Kingsborough Community College. Genine asserts that even to this day, she is sure that her teacher had this perspective solely because Genine is a black woman. “I knew all my friends, the black girls that I hung out with, they were all steered towards Kingsborough Community College” says Genine, now a Supreme Court Justice of New York. “I remember it because it was so blatant. I knew it was a racist position because I mean look at my grades.” This glaring idea that black women may not be equipped for greater than a certain standard is a phenomenon that women like Genine are all too familiar with.

Black women have a unique social position in America. Historically, they were excluded from certain positions because they were either not white enough, or not men. The early years of the industrial labor force found black women not allowed to work heavy equipment because they were not men, yet not given secretarial jobs because they were not white. The term intersectionality was coined by Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, and is used to define the specific type of discrimination that is faced when you’re caught in the crossroads of separate issues. Intersectionality has become the term most used to describe the feeling of what it’s like to be a black woman in America.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported that in the year 2010, black women accounted for over 65% of all bachelor’s degrees and over 70% of master’s degrees among the black community. By these results, black women are among one of the highest educated groups in America. Yet, black women still make 64 cents to the average white man’s dollar, earning less than white women and black men (Figure A). They are also among the least represented in the private sector work force, making up less than 2% (Figure B). Black women often have exceeding credentials, and yet are still fighting harder than most to receive the same opportunities to succeed.

Lynda Day is the Chairperson of the Africana Studies Department at Brooklyn College. She says that even in her high-level position, people still second guess the validity of the work being done. She recalled to me an instance where a colleague suggested she transfer to the History department because “it’s much more prestigious”. “Even the concept was so racist” says Professor Day, “to think that Africana Studies, by its very nature, was less than.”

Nicholine Charles is a middle school teacher in Brooklyn, with a dual undergrad degree and two master’s degrees, and still finds herself having to assert her credentials at her workplace. While she was pregnant with her second child, she decided to take 3 months off for maternity leave and received what she says was “excessive questioning” from her administration. “I felt like it was completely because they didn’t think that I could afford to take 3 months off”, recalls Charles. “The white women in my office weren’t being drilled on whether or not they could afford maternity leave”. The questioning only stopped after she asserted that her husband could support her family.

What these women have in common is that they have all been victim to unfair criticism based on their outward appearance. “I feel like people have these predisposed assumptions on what you can do based on stereotypes” says Charles. A study done by the Kellogg School of Management found that black job seekers were offered significantly less compensation than whites by potential new employers. It was also found that job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback and those with black names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback. This not-so-subtle racism in the workplace is a constant obstacle to people of color.

The stereotypes that black women face permeate their work environment on a regular basis. “I think one of the most offensive things about me, to my administration, is that I’m a black woman who is not an idiot”, says Charles. She explains that her mannerisms and the way that she speaks is often met with raised eyebrows or even annoyance by her white counterparts. “I don’t scream, and I don’t get loud, and I think sometimes they’re like ‘who do you think you are?’. Charles has also encountered situations where she has not been given the same opportunities as her white coworkers, and maintains that the only reason, is her race. When applying for “F-status”, a part-time position for after childbirth, she was denied, even though she had seen her white co-workers be granted the position.

Black women can also face discrimination from their subordinates. “There are the same types of attorneys who won’t address me as ‘your honor’,” says Judge Edwards. She often encounters those who do not respect her authority in the courtroom the way that they are supposed to, such as not standing when she enters the room. “I don’t think they would do that if there was a different person sitting on the bench.” She finds herself having to correct people during sessions and assert herself to demand the respect that she deserves.

With all the obstacles and stereotypes that are placed in front of them, black women have to work harder than most in order to gain the same amount of respect. Carolina Munoz is Chairperson of the Department of Sociology at Brooklyn College. She says that the constant discrimination can take a toll on the self-esteem and self-worth of women of color. “It’s a lot. [Women of color] have to do it all and do it all well” says Professor Munoz.

Despite the obstacles that are laid in front of them in the workplace, black women are still exceeding beyond the assumptions and the stereotypes. Judge Genine Edwards is a single mother to 3 teenage boys, while maintaining her high-powered career as a Supreme Court Justice of New York. Nicholine Charles gained her first master’s degree while living as a single mom to her 4-year-old son, and her second master’s while working and taking care of two children. Both women are examples of the types of excellence that black women are capable of.

When asked about how women of color tackle the obstacles put in front of them, Professor Carolina Day responded with this: “women of color are superhuman”.