Difficulties for Women Bridging Racial, Generational, and Global Divides
A symposium at Harvard Business School delved into "intersectionality"—the seemingly obvious yet complex idea that gender interacts with other axes of inequality such as race, age, class, and ethnicity.
In the months leading up to the 2008 presidential election, CNN ran a story titled "Gender or Race: Black Women Voters Face Tough Choices in South Carolina." The "tough choice" in question: should they vote according to race (Barack Obama) or gender (Hillary Clinton)? Scores of readers chastised the news network for suggesting that black females would cast votes based on gender or race rather on candidates' political platforms.
During that same period, Oprah Winfrey endorsed Obama for president, angering many of her female fans. For example, "She's choosing her race over her gender," wrote one reader in the comments section of Oprah.com. "Oprah—you should be ashamed of yourself!"
"Let's replace our judgment with curiosity"
Among scholars, it's called "intersectionality"—the obvious yet complex idea that gender interacts with other axes of inequality such as race, age, class, and ethnicity. This was the theme of the second annual Gender and Work Symposium, Relationships Among Women: Bridging Racial, Generational, and Global Divides, held April 3 and 4 at Harvard Business School. Participants included more than 100 academics and business practitioners from across the United States; about 90 percent of them were women.
"I wanted to…make it clear that we really are taking an intersectional approach to gender," said Robin Ely, Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration at HBS, who co-organized the event with HBS Associate Professor Amy Cuddy. Introducing the symposium, Ely talked about how intersectionality can complicate workplace and societal support systems among women. Would-be support systems often focus solely on the fact that women are women, ignoring the differences among them.
Conversations across gender and race lines can be difficult, Ely said. "We often judge or we feel we are being judged. But when we're in those places it's very difficult to learn. There needs to be a space between being perfect and being racist, classist, et cetera." Instead, she said, "Let's replace our judgment and our fears with curiosity."
Ely posed several questions to the participants: What gets in the way of women supporting women? How am I part of the problem? How can I be part of the solution? What perspective am I missing?
RACED AND GENDERED
The symposium's keynote speaker was Paula Giddings, E. A. Woodson 1922 Professor of Afro-American Studies at Smith College. In a talk titled "An Historical Perspective on Feminism," she discussed the intersection of the abolitionist and women's rights movements—and how attitudes of the nineteenth century mirrored those surrounding the 2008 presidential election. Pinning race against gender is historically commonplace, she said, but it's a false dichotomy because "we are all raced, and we are all gendered."
Giddings talked of "racist, classist vitriol" in writings by renowned nineteenth-century feminists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. For example, she referred to a piece in which Stanton wondered whether freed male slaves might hamper feminism. "It becomes a serious question whether we had better step aside and see 'Sambo' walk into the kingdom first," Giddings read, quoting Stanton. (Stanton went on to write, "This is the negro's hour. Are we sure that he, once entrenched in his inalienable rights, may not be an added power to hold us at bay?")
"Depending heavily on token women could be problematic"
The rhetoric surrounding Obama vs. Clinton was reminiscent of that dynamic, Giddings said. "We keep falling into the same trap again and again."
Giddings also pointed out that initiatives to help disenfranchised groups often focus on either race or gender. For example, Obama last year launched My Brother's Keeper, an initiative to create opportunities for boys and young men of color. There is no equivalent initiative for girls of color. "How can we miss the fact that girls have trouble, too?" Giddings asked.
In a Q&A after Giddings' talk, a black participant acknowledged her personal struggle with the race/gender divide. "I still feel I have to choose between working for white women and working for black men," she said.
GENDER RELATIONS IN THE WORKPLACE
Sessions at the symposium focused on bridging race, bridging generations, bridging the global divide among women, and ways in which gender imbalance can fuel dysfunctional relationships among women in the workplace. In each, experts presented the findings of extensive studies.
Ely discussed a line of research in which she interviewed women at several law firms, noting both positive and negative interactions among peers and supervisors. In terms of positivity versus negativity, the consistent mediating factor was whether the women considered their gender to be a detriment to success. In short, women who didn't feel hindered by their gender at work tended to have healthier workplace relationships with each other than those who did.
Other presenters challenged the common notion that organizations can fuel gender equality by placing a few token women in the top ranks—assuming they will reach out to help other women break through the glass ceiling. "If this solution is working, it's moving at a glacial pace," said Michelle Duguid, an assistant professor at Washington University's Olin Business School who conducted research with Denise Lewin Lloyd, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The team's research suggested the contrary: that the higher a woman rose to power, the less likely she might be to help other women do the same. According to their studies, female tokens in "high-prestige workgroups" showed less of a preference for female job candidates than did female tokens in "low-prestige workgroups."
The findings indicated that tokenism can produce perceptions of threat among token women in power: value threat (the concern that the token woman is not a valued member of the group); competitive threat (the concern that another woman will be valued more); and favoritism threat (the concern that supporting another woman will be seen as illegitimate favoritism).
But if women comprised the majority of a high-prestige workgroup, they were much more likely to support and hire other women, the study showed.
"Depending heavily on token women could be problematic," Duguid said, adding that organizations can foster gender equality by making it an organization-wide issue, rather than leaving the problem up to the women.
On that note, Leah Sheppard, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, discussed the widespread notion that women are obligated to take care of each other in the workplace—more so than men are obligated to take care of female employees. Anecdotally, she noted the public outcry when Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer disallowed employees from working at home, undoubtedly making life harder for many working mothers. But Best Buy adopted a no-telecommuting policy a month after Yahoo! did, and male CEO Hubert Joly faced significantly less media coverage for the move.
Sheppard presented findings from several experiments exploring the perception that women are cattier than men. In one experiment, participants were divided into groups and asked to assess a series of hypothetical workplace conflicts between two managers.
Each group reviewed identical situations—except for the names of the arguing characters: Adam and Steven (two men), Adam and Sarah (a man and a woman), or Sarah and Anna (two women). All else being equal, the participants offered the most negative assessments for the conflicts involving Sarah and Anna—both in terms of the likelihood that they could repair their relationship, and the likelihood that their argument would hurt workplace morale and productivity.
Sheppard noted the preponderance of negative female relationship stereotypes in the public lexicon. Indeed, when two men argue, nobody refers to the discussion as a catfight.
"Some of these stereotypes could be dangerous and could create self-fulfilling prophecies," she said.