Where In The Workforce Are All The Black Women?
By May Amoyaw
A recent Harvard Business Review study found that “only 13% of black female Harvard MBAs over the past 40 years have reached the senior most executive ranks.” After interviewing 30 of those women about what it took to achieve success, resilience stood out as the underlying value for advancement in their careers. It was also determined that the three keys to resilience lay in emotional intelligence, authenticity, and agility, all of which these black women had to adapt to survive in corporate America. There are currently no black women CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies. Which leads me to believe that while resilience is necessary to make it to the top, for black women, representation is too.
What is Representation?
Simply explained, representation is being able to see yourself in someone else, whether in the movies or the workplace. It is the moment when Parker Curry looked up at Michelle Obama’s portrait at the National Portrait Gallery. The associated feeling is often accompanied with self-confidence, silent mantras, and soft smiles that say “if she can do it, I can do it”.
The representation of highly qualified and resilient women in the C-Suite is necessary to change the narrative about black women in the labor market. It is necessary for little black girls to look up to other women and it is something that cannot be taken for granted. I would not be in economics if it were not for the elements of resilience I learned along the way and the representation that inspired me. My story is the story of a lawyer, a teacher, and a politician. All of whom unknowingly taught me the resilience it takes to be a successful black woman. It was a combination of their agility, emotional intelligence, and authenticity that allowed me to flourish into the woman that I am and hope to be. Black women face a unique intersection of race and gender and must navigate work spaces differently and learning from these women taught me that if they could do it, I could too.
I learned agility working as a legal assistant for a lawyer, whose swiftness instilled in me an ambitious flexibility that moved when she moved. She never let me do less than amazing, and pushed me to limits I did not believe I had. She taught me to be nimble and quick and to remember to always look at the details over and over and over again. The twists and turns of legal obligations and paperwork kept me on my feet but she taught me to never miss a beat. The grace she operated with in her work left me wanting to be the best version of myself. I could see myself in her. I can still close my eyes and remember sitting at the front desk thinking, if she can do it, then one day I can do it.
Before I became a teacher, tough love was my motto. Initially, I approached my first graders with stiffness sprinkled with anxiety and was unable to navigate the balance between being the fun or serious teacher. A veteran teacher across the hall reached out to me and sternly reminded me of my duty to be my best self and to constantly strive for a greatness that would be admired by the malleable minds in front of me. Little by little we broke down walls and barriers, revealing an emotional intelligence that I didn’t know I had. She navigated her role with a responsibility and a pride that went beyond the classroom. And as I picture my small classroom with polka dots, space ships and combinations of primary colors everywhere, I can’t help but to think of the teacher who taught me. I watched her admiringly and quietly smiled to myself repeating mantras of affirmation that said, if she can do it, I can do it.
A politician taught me authenticity. Read aloud, the sentence seems like a satirical zinger on your favorite late night television show. But it was the way she defended her values, spoke up for those whose voices had been stripped from them, and always addressed inequity. There were no gimmicks or cover ups. She hated the rain and even though pink and green was her favorite color combination, there was a crimson red energy that illuminated the office. It wasn’t about political donations, it was about the people. There I was thinking I was going to learn how to be someone else and she taught me that I should only be myself. I saw her every day and would look at her with a fresh awe like I had never seen her before. My mouth wouldn’t move but my eyes said it all. If she can do it, then I know I can do it.
While I have been blessed to see black women represented in leadership roles, this is not the case for most people. We know that young people being able to see themselves in others makes a difference in the trajectory of their lives. We must think about the success of all young people. Black girls need someone to affirm them too and we have to do better, if not for ourselves, for them. They have to be able to see themselves and think one day, I can do it too.
Like Katherine Johnson led to Mae Jemison and Shirley Chisholm to Maxine Waters. Maybe one day Michelle Obama will lead to President Parker Curry. I hope my story and the stories of many black women and girls is one that will always be told in a tone that expresses our resilience and the power of representation. May my story, our story, and her story begin and end in an affirmation that if they can do it, we can do it too.