African-American Women Chip Away at `Concrete' Ceiling

THE term ``glass ceiling'' has become increasingly familiar. It refers to the obstacles women face in reaching upper-management positions in corporations. But experts say the ceiling is even harder for African-American women to crack.

``When you're talking about a glass ceiling, black women are saying they are facing a concrete wall,'' says Stella Nkomo, a professor of management at the University of North Carolina and a Bunting fellow at Radcliffe College.

``To understand this, you have to understand that sexism is overlayed with racism,'' she says.

Ms. Nkomo was asked by Joyce Miller, executive director of the United States Department of Labor's Commission on the Glass Ceiling, to undertake a study of the impact of the glass ceiling on black women. Ongoing resistance

``When anyone says women are not affected or have gone beyond the glass ceiling, that's ridiculous,'' Ms. Miller says. A founder of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and a former vice president of the AFL-CIO executive council, she visited Radcliffe College last week to talk about the barriers to career advancement that minorities and women face.

When Miller was appointed executive director last spring by Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the commission, established under the Civil Rights Act of 1991, was relatively inactive. Under Miller, the commission began 17 research projects on various aspects of employment discrimination.

The commission will start releasing its findings early next year and will present a final report to President Clinton and Congress in January 1995.

One of these research projects focuses on how the glass ceiling affects white women; another on the broader topic of ``race, gender, and ethnicity.''

``The barriers for [black and white] women are similar and dissimilar,'' Nkomo says. ``There's the sexism that all women face, and then there's the racism that's added for women of color.''

In addition to her work for the commission, Nkomo recently completed a comparative study on the career experiences of black and white women with Ella Bell, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Nkomo says that of the 300 black and 450 white female managers she interviewed at US companies, more blacks said they were given little organized support, particularly in the areas of career counseling and training.

More African-Americans also reported that they had no access to mentors and were often ``ghettoized'' in staff positions with little decisionmaking power. The black women Nkomo interviewed perceived their relationships with their supervisors less positively than their white counterparts. White bosses were afraid to give their black female employees honest feedback, many said, for fear of being called racist. Little improvement

``The stories I'm hearing today are similar to [the stories] 12 years ago,'' Nkomo says. ``That dismays me.''

The problem, Nkomo says, is that when companies talk about the glass ceiling, they make little distinction between women and minorities.

``Companies feel they have made progress because there are more white women in management positions,'' she says. ``But while they [white women] make progress, others are overlooked.'' Managing change

One solution, Miller says, is better diversity training. ``You can't just give lip-service to diversity,'' she says. ``You have to have the commitment of the top person in the company.''

Most companies do not give African-American women the ``software'' they need, Miller says. That software, she says, includes access to mentors, skills enhancement training, and even practical advice on what to wear to get ahead. ``Not many companies make an effort to give them this broad training,'' Miller says.

Miller says she hopes the commission's final report will have a lasting impact on the business community and Congress. ``The bottom line is we hope to crack the glass ceiling,'' she says, ``or possibly even break it.''

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