Double bias: how some women cope

'I'm more than just a woman: I'm Cape Verdean; I'm black; I'm white; I'm Indian," Ann Ulett says at this town-hall meeting for professional women.

The moderator prods her: "What if someone at work says to you, 'I just don't see color'?"

"That's saying you don't see me," Ms. Ulett shoots back.

Still facing the prospect of double bias in the workplace - because of race and gender - women of color working full time often struggle to advance. They usually make less than their white counterparts. For them, the "glass ceiling" sometimes looks more like steel. Simply avoiding being stereotyped, even by other women, can be hard.

That is why Working Mother Media organized last month's forum at Simmons College in Boston, which brought Ulett and a mix of women together to talk across racial lines.

"The purpose is to have one place where gender and race meet ... because women's issues, while very important to diversity initiatives, can get left out unless you really focus on them," says Carol Evans, founder of Working Mother Media, which publishes Working Mother Magazine. The group is hosting a series of regional forums to enhance the magazine's initiative to highlight the best companies for women of color and to urge more employers to look specifically at their experiences.

The numbers show a mixed picture.

Clearly, minority women have not progressed up the corporate ladder the way white women have. They made up just 1.3 percent of corporate officers in Fortune 500 firms in the year 2000, compared with 12.5 percent for women as a whole, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization in New York.

And generally, they earn less. For example, on average, African-American women earned $27,600 and Hispanic women made $23,200 in 1999 - 11 and 25 percent less, respectively, than what white women made, according to a recent analysis by the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Asian-Americans were the only ones who did better: $33,100, or 7 percent better than whites. And even these figures can hide variations among people with different national origins or immigration histories.

On the other hand, these differences - while substantial - are narrower than the ones that male minorities face (in 1999 Hispanic men earned 63 percent the pay of non-Hispanic white men, the census reports).

And some companies are making progress in addressing the challenges faced by minority women. This spring, Working Mother Magazine recognized six firms - Allstate, American Express, Fannie Mae, General Mills, IBM, and JPMorgan Chase - as the "Best Companies for Women of Color." The six were commended for having formal policies and practices designed to help women of color advance. Nearly 70 percent of the women polled inside those companies said they were satisfied with their advancement in the company and close to 90 percent planned to be with their companies for the next year.

But getting beyond the numbers is trickier.

The 200 women who gathered in Boston started with discussions in their own racial or ethnic groups, then shifted to mixed tables. When they came back together, participants stepped up to the mikes in the middle of the floor. Some talked about why they identify more by race than by gender; others complained that female bosses are sometimes surprisingly less supportive than men; still others rushed to acknowledge female colleagues who have already reached out across racial lines.

Simply communicating across racial lines offers new insights, according to participants.

"I talk about this with other women of color," says Lydia Rosa, a Latina participant from New York State. "But I don't talk about it with white women, [because] to open up the subject with a white woman, you take the chance that it can be construed as you're playing the race card or focusing too much on color."

Seeing the differences among "women of color" was just as valuable. "At our [mixed] table we were talking about how African-American women will tend to reach back and help others, and an Asian-American woman said that Asians didn't do that," explains Ulett, a diversity and work-life leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Boston. "I found it really surprising, because I just thought they were a much tighter community."

The women discussed commonalities, too: everything from their struggles as working moms to their desire for more honest feedback from bosses. "People sometimes fear we're going to act a certain way - that white women might cry or black women might get angry," Ulett says.

The importance of mentoring has emerged as a key theme at the forums, Ms. Evans says. Surveys at the regional events show that women of color often feel isolated.

"It makes a big difference who greets you at the door and how they guide you and protect you and encourage you," says Ms. Rosa, who launched her own business last year after growing frustrated as white women advanced faster than she did. "If you had a few people you could go to and ask the dumb questions, someone who would say, 'Read this book, take that transfer,'... it would make a world of difference."

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