#TeamUp: Black women leaders find that “to be equal, you have to be superior”

Damani Moyd/Courtesy of Jacqueline Adams
Jacqueline Adams, an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist, recently coauthored a book about the experiences of Black women leaders.

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In my careers in journalism and business, nonprofit work and education, I have often been the only woman or the only Black person in the room – certainly the only Black woman. That never surprised me.

My first conscious memory is of my father saying, “When you’re Black in America, to be equal, you have to be superior.” I thought to myself, “Is that all it takes?” 

Why We Wrote This

Our new #TeamUp column will cover racial equity, foreign policy, the arts, and more. It kicks off exploring what it’s like to be the only one of your race and/or gender in the room – a position our Emmy Award-winning columnist knows all too well.

From excelling in school to becoming an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist, I traded superior achievement for equal treatment.

But despite often being the “only,” I am not alone. Across industries, Black women leaders know “only-ness” all too well – along with the built-in stressors that come with it.

And yet, Black women are indomitable. Harvard Business Review found that women of color are three times more likely to aspire to a position of power with a prestigious title than white women. Ironically, white women are about twice as likely to attain that position of power.

What’s the answer? Women of color can and are “teaming up.” And you can join us. Keep an eye out for this #TeamUp column, devoted to issues of racial equity, social justice, foreign policy, and the arts.

How often are you the only person of your gender or race in a professional setting? Do you even notice? Have you ever asked yourself this question?

In this season of recognizing social and racial injustices, the question is relevant. And there’s lots of data on the subject.

Truth be told, in my careers in journalism and business, in my decades of experience in nonprofit work and education, I have often been the “only.” When I was a copy kid at The Christian Science Monitor almost a half-century ago, I was an “only.” And I barely noticed. 

Why We Wrote This

Our new #TeamUp column will cover racial equity, foreign policy, the arts, and more. It kicks off exploring what it’s like to be the only one of your race and/or gender in the room – a position our Emmy Award-winning columnist knows all too well.

It is only now, as I call up a sepia-toned mental image of my Monitor posse and bosses, that I notice they were all white and male, among them the publisher and his son. They were my friends. Many of them continued working at the Monitor. But I had other ambitions and was able to fulfill them.

I became an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist with CBS News. I traveled the world, reporting on Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. When I moved to New York City, I described my CBS beat as “mayhem and the arts.” I covered major criminal trials and business news for “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather” as well as a series of French Impressionism and 20th-century African American art exhibits for “CBS Sunday Morning.

I lost touch with my friends who built their careers at the Monitor. Relentlessly, perhaps blindly, I pursued my own goals of success and achievement.  

And now, I have come home to the Monitor to begin a new role as a columnist, somewhat more observant than I was as a copy kid.  

A toxic standard

My first conscious memory is of my father saying, “When you’re Black in America, to be equal, you have to be superior.” Yes, that standard is impossibly, needlessly high. But I didn’t resent my father’s insistent message. I said to myself, “Is that all it takes?” The world’s standard is, and was, just a passing grade. When you’re a child, school is your job. What else was more important than working a little harder to get superior grades?

And my grades were superior! That empirical data gave me confidence. And that confidence propelled me, sustained me, in all of the rooms in which I was – and even today, at times, remain – an “only.”

Why does the standard have to be so high? It doesn’t. But that standard – and the racial bias implicit in it – can be toxic. Both demand a response.

Securing a seat at the table

For our newly published book, “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive,” my co-author, Bonita C. Stewart, and I conducted a survey of 4,005 female American “desk workers.” As far as we know, our Women of Color in Business: Cross Generational Survey is the first to look at four races (Black, Latina, Asian, and white) and four generations (boomers, Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z).  

We found that 47% of Black women ­– almost half – said they are frequently or always the only person of their race in professional situations. By contrast, 73% of white women said they are rarely the only person of their race in such a setting.  

We also found that 31% of Black women said their job applications are viewed more skeptically. The number is almost twice that reported by white women (17%). A recent McKinsey & Co. survey of racial equity in financial services confirmed the finding, even beyond the financial industry: “Black job applicants with degrees from elite universities experience the same résumé response rate as white applicants with degrees from state colleges.”

“We are the miraculous”

Once Black women cross the application hurdle and are hired, their “only-ness” comes with built-in stressors. We found that twice as many Black women as white said their work is viewed skeptically (35% of Black women, 23% Latina, 17% Asian, 16% white). And a number of surveys have found that women of color face more microaggressions than white women. Their judgment is questioned in the workplace, and even senior women are mistaken for support staff.

And yet, Black women are indomitable – even in the face of scrutiny, stress, and aggressions, both micro and macro. Harvard Business Review research has quantified our unbridled ambition with the finding that women of color are three times more likely to aspire to a position of power with a prestigious title than white women. Ironically, white women are about twice as likely to attain that position of power.

What’s the answer? Women of color can and are “teaming up.” And you can join us. As an example, Black, Latina, and Asian American alumnae at Harvard Business School have held their first joint “sisterhood circles,” providing inspiration, psychological support, and concrete advice for individuals facing specific challenges. As poet Maya Angelou wrote, “We are the miraculous.”

This #TeamUp column is the first in a series devoted to issues of racial equity, social justice, foreign policy, and the arts. Stay tuned. 

Jacqueline Adams is co-author of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive."

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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