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Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity - Careers of a Different Color

How do the career paths of black and white businesswomen differ? In Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity, management professors Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell and Stella M. Nkomo attempt to understand the experiences of black and white women as they climb the corporate ladder. The work is based on an eight-year research project that included 120 personal interviews and a national survey.

Our Separate Ways

The authors of Our Separate Ways trace the surprising differences between black and white women's career paths. This excerpt focuses on the career routes of two women: Brenda Boyd, who is black, and Joyce Canton, who is white.

Sixty percent of the African-American women and 70 percent of the white women we interviewed took a meandering path to their managerial careers. As one woman put it, "I sort of wandered into it." We examined chronologies of the women's careers to determine the average number of years it took for them to achieve the first management position. On average, it took 6.5 years for black women and 6.7 years for the white women. Many of the women started in other fields. It was only later in their adult lives that they ended up in business management. Other women delayed entry because of an early marriage or postponement of undergraduate education. Their actual entry into management positions was often serendipitous. They did not engage in elaborate career strategies or tactics. Often these women just reacted to fortuitous events. The narratives of Brenda Boyd and Joyce Canton demonstrate the similarities and the differences in the meandering paths of the black and white women.

Brenda Boyd's Path. If she was uncertain about a career, Brenda Boyd was absolutely certain about one thing: she was going to take care of herself. "When I think back, I see that I always wanted to make sure that I could take care of myself. I didn't really understand what that meant, but I knew I didn't want to be dependent." Although she expected to marry one day, she also expected to work. But when she graduated from college she still had no idea what she would do. She was, in her own words, "in a complete fog." A chance meeting with the dean of the law school had sent her off to law school. But after two semesters she knew it was not the career for her. Marriage came next. Although her marriage was faltering and she was pregnant, Brenda decided to pursue a doctorate in higher education administration. She wanted a career in which she could help people improve their lives. It was something her father had instilled in her and something he strived for in his own life.

I'm not sure I had any good reasons for going to business school except that it involved one year less than law school.
—Joyce Canton

After earning her doctorate, she did a stint in the administration of a state department of higher education. Brenda realized there that she "did not have the temperament to put up with the bureaucracy and the kinds of limits placed on what could be done to help people. So I decided at that point I needed to work someplace where one could make a difference without all the red tape. I wanted to be in charge of some kind of corporate philanthropy. I wasn't sure at the time exactly what it was called, but I knew I wanted to be in that type of position." Through a fortuitous call to a friend, Brenda learned of a large company that happened to be creating a department of corporate affairs that was to have a charitable contributions program. She was hired as the department's first director and was responsible for establishing its charitable contributions programs. Seven years later, she went on to assume a senior-level position in public relations in the company.

Joyce Canton's Path. Joyce Canton was highly motivated to have a career, to leave her "little town," and to live in a big city. "I was not going to get married to anybody that I knew in high school. I was going to go on to college and one day live in a big city." Joyce worked assisting her father in his ophthalmologist office but she knew she didn't want to become an eye doctor or optician. "I never thought I would get married right after college but I had in mind that somewhere around twenty-seven or twenty-eight I'd get married. I'd go to graduate school then go to work a few years and then I'd end up being married. I'd probably have kids by the time I was in my early thirties."

Our Separate Ways

After graduating from college with a degree in political science, Joyce took off for New York City. First, she worked as a waitress. When she got a job as a secretary, she had to keep waiting tables to supplement her meager paycheck. After about a year, Joyce became press secretary to a congressman. Even though she liked her work, she said, "At some point along the way, I decided I did not want to be a starving journalist in the back woods of Alabama for x amount of years. I came to the conclusion that some financial security and flexibility were of value to me. I did not have the temperament or the lifestyle to be a starving artist and to make it in journalism." Joyce decided to go to graduate school but was uncertain about what exactly to pursue.

I had no idea of the kind of active assessment that needs to go into choosing a career. It's not that I dismissed it. I didn't even realize that it needed to be done.
—Julia Smith

The lead staff person in the congressman's office had an M.B.A. and after a conversation with him, Joyce decided to get that graduate degree. "I'm not sure I had any good reasons for going to business school except that it involved one year less than law school. When I actually got to business school and was trying to figure out what aspect of this was going to make sense for me, I remember not having a clue as to what most people did after business school." During her graduate education, she figured out that marketing tapped her talent and her interests. When Joyce graduated with her degree, she interviewed with several firms and landed a job as an assistant manager in the marketing area of a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company. Two years later, she moved to another consumer products company as a marketing manager, a position that put her on track to be a vice president.

The examples of Brenda and Joyce are typical of the women who took meandering paths to their managerial careers. Both came from middle-class backgrounds. Middle-class parents in the '50s and '60s expected their children to be well educated, whether they were male [or] female or whether they went on to have a "career" or not. Children of the middle class were socialized to value intellectual challenge or, as the renowned sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would put it, to build their "cultural capital."  25 

Yet neither Brenda nor Joyce received career information or career counseling during high school. As we pointed out earlier, most of the women in our study graduated from high school with little help from school counselors. This is the case even though so many of the women we interviewed were exceptional students—national merit scholars, valedictorians, salutatorians, and class leaders. Both Brenda and Joyce were star students in high school. Both went to college and graduate school. Yet Brenda and Joyce were given little help in translating their intellect and drive into professional careers. Jean Hendrick's experience echoed that of Brenda and Joyce, and she nicely summed up what we heard time after time when we asked the women to recall their plans when they finished high school: "I knew I was going to college but I didn't really think about what my career would be. I knew I liked to write and I liked acting but I didn't really think of what I would be. I never thought, for example, of being a teacher or a doctor or anything like that."

Both Brenda and Joyce factored in marriage when thinking about their futures. Both tended to place their occupational plans in the larger context of family and life aspirations. Other research has shown that women generally consider the implications of their occupational choice for present and future family lives.  26 By contrast, men generally take for granted that they can consider careers without worrying about the impact of marriage. Marriage and relationships, however, have a primary role in the dreams and self-identities of many women.  27 

Serendipity, or what Mary Catherine Bateson refers to as "semidirected happenstance" in her book Composing a Life, played a large role for black and white women on meandering paths.  28  These women were not systematic in their career choices but rather took an incremental approach, responding to fortuitous events and gradually learning along the way what they did or did not like. Brenda went to law school because of a chance conversation with a dean, only to realize later that she didn't like law. She got her job in corporate America through a timely call to a friend whose company just happened to be thinking about a new position. Likewise, Joyce Canton gained clarity about her career goals gradually and by happenstance. A chance conversation with an acquaintance sparked Julia Smith's interest in business. "She started me thinking about it. I said, 'Well maybe I ought take the GMAT'—the aptitude test for admission to business school. So I sort of just walked in two weeks later and took the test." Scoring in the ninety-seventh percentile, she was accepted by an Ivy League business school. From there she was recruited into her first corporate position as a financial analyst.

College itself did not clarify career goals for either Brenda or Joyce. This was typical of the women on a meandering path. Julia Smith speaks with incredulity as she talks about her life after graduating from a prestigious women's college with a degree in economics. "I had no idea of the kind of active assessment that needs to go into choosing a career. It's not that I dismissed it. I didn't even realize that it needed to be done." She describes herself as "drifting aimlessly" in the years right after college. Two masters degrees and seven years after undergraduate school, Julia Smith finally identified what she wanted to do: have a career in business.

But there are also distinct differences in the meandering paths of various women. Typically, the women who took a meandering path pursued or tried other careers before moving into management. Like many of the black women who took a meandering path, Brenda initially wanted a career that would allow her to help others. "I felt that my responsibility in life was not just to selfishly take advantage of the luck of the draw that I had in life," she said, "but instead was for me to use the luck of the draw and also my intellectual ability and leadership to help the black community as a whole." Anchoring many of the African-American women's ideas about their careers was what we call an ethic of giving back to the African-American community. Career anchor is a term coined by organizational scholar Edgar Schein to describe a basic value or motive that plays a significant role in forming the direction of a career. The critical feature of the career anchor is that it "serves to guide, constrain, stabilize, and integrate a person's career."  29 We did not find such a consistent career anchor among the white women.

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Excerpted with permission from Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity, Harvard Business School Press, 2001.

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A Historical Moment For Women in the Workplace

The women executives in this book tell their individual stories of trials and triumphs, but the stories taken together also tell a collective story. It is the story of black and white women who came of age in the '60s, during the civil rights movement, when unprecedented educational and employment possibilities were made available to African-Americans. In turn, the civil rights movement helped usher in the women's movement, enabling women not only to increase their numbers in the workforce but also to enter nontraditional careers. In this historical moment, women gained the option of becoming career-oriented, able to devote more time and energy to developing their careers than ever before.

From this rather broad conceptual framework, we developed six questions to guide our research:

1. What are the women's early life stories?

2. How did race, gender, and social class affect key developmental aspects of their lives?

3. What are the effects of gender, race, and social class over the course of their lives?

4. What role conflicts do the African-American women experience as a result of their bicultural life structures?

5. How do gender, race, and social class affect the women's work experiences, upward mobility, and career satisfaction?

6. How do women managers negotiate their work, family, and community roles and the interrelationships among them?

Because we were dealing with a largely understudied phenomena at the time of this research, we found it very useful to think of our framework more as a set of assumptions guiding the research than as hypotheses to be tested.

Excerpted with permission from Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity, Harvard Business School Press, 2001.


25. Richard Harker, Cheleen Mahar, and Chris Wilkes, eds., An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990). See especially chapter 5 on education.

26. Jeffrey H. Greenhaus and Gerald A. Callanan, Career Management (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994): 121.

27. Gallos," Exploring Women's Development," 114-121.

28. Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Life (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989), 1-18.