In 2006, I was a 21-year-old communications intern at a multinational conglomerate. Our team was sitting around the conference table chatting about our rock star CEO when my manager flung a compliment at me and my co-intern, also a young Black woman: “You all keep up the good work and you could be the next CEOs.”
I scoffed. “If not a white man, the next CEO will be a Black man, then a white woman, and then a Black woman will get her chance. That’s the order it always goes in,” I said. I was only five months into my internship, but I’d been part of the corporate world long enough to have learned a few things about my place in it as a Black woman.
My manager, a white woman, seemed taken aback. “That’s not true,” she said. Then we all waited for her to prove me wrong. It was May. The Enron trials played in the background on a small, bulky TV stacked on top of a bank of filing cabinets. White men politely pressed other white men about their white-collar crimes. She went on, “Well, you could be the one to break that trend.” I doubted it.
We were still three years away from Ursula Burns becoming the first Black woman to head a Fortune 500 company as the CEO of Xerox. And, as I predicted, the CEO before her was a white woman.
My manager was a kindhearted woman invested in my success, but there were still issues of access that blocked Black women like me from progressing in our careers. And these were issues that could not be fixed by a few good white women (but could certainly be made worse by a few white women wielding their power recklessly). It isn’t just that CEOs are appointed in a predictable order of race and gender, it’s that there are systemic barriers in place to keep Black women from leaping ahead.
A few months later, my manager’s manager, another white woman, nominated me and my co-intern—I’ll call her Nia—to interview for a leadership program, which served as the company’s pipeline into executive positions. But there was a problem: They only recruited from the top three college communications programs in the nation. The state school we had attended in Kentucky? Not one of them. Without help, this was a chance that would have been denied to us, a door to an opportunity closed by a decision we made at 18 because we didn’t know how these things worked.
We nailed our interviews and were the only Black women who made it into the program, but I was the only one who attended. Nia was assigned to a role in Connecticut and her starting salary was too low to live on. When she asked HR for a raise, they told her the rest of our cohort was “making it work.” But these were white women living in expensive cities with parents who could afford to pay their expenses. Their salaries were just fun money. Nia’s parents didn’t have that kind of money. And the wealth gap in this country means most Black families don’t. Black women do not benefit from the intergenerational wealth white men have accumulated, which was made possible by 250 years of slavery in America.
"It isn’t just that CEOs are appointed in a predictable order of race and gender, it’s that there are systemic barriers in place to keep Black women from leaping ahead."
My first assignment was in Ohio. Generally, the conglomerate accepted one program nominee per business, but in an unusual move, my business was assigned two. Over the phone, the other nominee told me that her daddy was an executive within the company and had been helpful in her making the program. She felt bad about it, but he had comforted her with, “Should anyone be made to feel bad about using all the resources at their disposal?” One of the highlights of the program was that everyone accepted got to live and work abroad for nine months. When the company informed me early on that only one of us would be eligible for the international rotation, but that I could get just as much experience without leaving the country, I knew their decision had already been made, and it had more to do with who my father wasn’t than with who I was. White women, as daughters and wives, have a proximity to white men that Black women do not.
My new manager was a white woman who made absurd claims like believing “people who live downtown” wear hoodies in the summertime to hide their guns in the pockets. After one interaction—when I pointed out it was more cost-effective to pay a supplier to do a small task than do it ourselves—she complained to her manager that I’d started an argument and embarrassed her at a meeting. The “meeting” had been just she and I and the finance person quietly talking in my cubicle.
A month later, my manager took me to lunch at Panera and suggested I quit, but said I should use her as a reference when applying for other jobs. I wonder how many other Ursula Burnses were pushed off their career paths while eating a sandwich. I didn’t become the first Black woman CEO of our company; I didn’t even make it a whole three months in the leadership program. My next employer hired me, but was confused as to why I’d list a reference who’d described me as “the most unprofessional person I’ve ever worked with.”
I spent a decade in corporate America learning that working with white women often meant learning how to work around them on my way up the next rung of the ladder. I tell every Black woman I meet that being humble is a trap. I began loudly and boldly owning my accomplishments in the workplace. Because if I didn’t someone else would claim them or any trumped-up negative noise would drown out all the ways I was succeeding in my role. I made it so no white woman, even if they were my direct manager, could eliminate my shine in the workplace. And then, when the time was right, I started a business of my own so I’d be beholden only to myself.
In the workplace, we aren’t all just women. We aren’t all Hillary Clintons. Some us are Shirley Chisholms. We have to break ground before we can break glass ceilings. We have to worry about our pantsuits and our edges. We have to get our foot through the door and hold it open for women like us while also securing our seat at the table.
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