Fitting into corporate America is tight topic for black women and their bosses

By Tomi Morris Johnson

©2002 WingcomLtd. All Rights Reserved.


August 5, 2002, Atlanta, GA…When I was an adolescent, I didn’t understand why my mother fussed about her own decision to wear uncomfortable, pointy-toed shoes and nylon stockings via an ill-fitting garter belt to church in the summertime. Now that I hate pantyhose myself, I can relate to what she was feeling - wanting to look “presentable” in public, no matter what the cost. After attending a symposium for corporate women, I understand the pain African American females experience while trying to squeeze into the taut, armor-plated costume of a corporate diva.


◄ Heller, Jones, Alexander, and Banks spoke about their experiences within corporate America at the Carter Presidential Center.


Why is being a Black woman in corporate America so painful, and will these women ever be happy? What sacrifices have they made? Will they ever be able to have a good relationship with a man, leave their work at the office, enjoy fraternizing with White peers at the company picnic?  What are the keys to their success in corporate America?


Keys to corporate success are forged and molded by how these women recognize and deal with self and other women in the same predicament. More importantly, how their bosses seek solutions to make the workplace a nurturing, healthy environment for all workers is the key chain of retention. Although it’s not likely corporate America will become a warm and fuzzy place for African American women, knowing how to cope in what often appears to be a a steel-like, racist/sexist cage is more than a dream and requires extraordinary fortitude for corporate women AND their managers.


Maybe it was no coincidence the featured speakers at the 2002 Regional Mid-Level Managers Symposium “African American Women and the Art of Fitting Into Corporate America” held at the Carter Presidential Center were psychologists and organizational behaviorists – Dr. Price Cobbs and Dr. Ella Bell. True success for these women is about winning mind games, setting realistic goals, and being guided and protected by sponsors.


“I really believed my ex-boss was the anti-Christ,” related Billye Alexander, senior VP, Midwest Region for Sears, Roebuck and Co.  After 32 years of working for the major retailer, from selling polyester blouses to managing 15,000 employees in 17 states, Alexander has paid her dues but remains emotional when telling her story. “You have to take ownership of your career and create support groups,” Alexander said while fighting back tears. “You have to keep reminding yourself how strong your ancestors were…and realize that everyone in corporate America is not your enemy.”


▲ Susan Johnson, The Carter Center; Donna Brooks-Lucas, DBL Multi-Media Group; Dr. Price Cobbs, Pacific Management Systems, and Billye Alexander, Sears, Roebuck and Co.


“I realize that I’m strong and confident professionally, but weak and insecure personally,” stated Paula Banks, VP of Global Social Investment at British Petroleum (BP) who directs staff in London, Chicago, Los Angeles and Cleveland. Banks said she walks by faith and detours isolation.  “I’ve learned what traction means,” Banks said.


“I had a blessing from my family,” said Ingrid Saunders Jones, senior VP of corporate external affairs at Coca Cola Company and chairperson of the Coca-Cola Foundation who says she takes time to think about the day’s challenges during her morning bath.  “I always knew I would be educated and successful and that I was smart.  That is a good feeling to have when you’re trying to negotiate this world…it’s a wonder we are not all crazy,” she added.


Bridgette Heller is former executive VP and general manager of the Coffee Division of Kraft Foods North America, Inc.  “Knowing when it was time to leave because of corporate culture changes was a choice I made,” Heller said.  “I was surprised at how I was letting the company decide my next move.  Don’t fall into that trap,” she told listeners.


Heller said African America women are often regarded as worker bees and not queens in corporate environments. “I realized that not being able to be the CEO had nothing to do with my abilities. You will not be given the plum assignments and be poised for growth.” Heller said black women often find themselves given the worst tasks and are anticipated to meet expectations, regardless of obstacles.


The way some women handle corporate stress is to over eat, over shop, stop exercising, treat their husbands/boyfriends like employees, lose spirituality, and lose hope. Sometimes there are casualties.  Donna Brooks-Lucas is a member of the Executive Leadership Council and the symposium’s coordinator. “We had a member who committed suicide. She was totally isolated, had a series of family crisis as well as problems at work. She took her own life. We have issues that we can’t talk about at work.”



▲ Isolation is a common problem of corporate women.

“I don’t know what white males discuss in their business meetings. They’re probably so competitive that they don’t talk about anything. White males don’t need mentors; they have unspoken ones. They meet people at the country club, in their own communities where they live. We’re not a part of that scene. With them, family takes care of family.  They say to their friends, ‘My son’s graduating from college – give him a job.’ We don’t have that,” Brooks-Lucas continued.


“When we come together, we need to support each other just like they do, make each other feel whole, help each other’s children. We need a network to feel safe, a safe harbor, somewhere we can freely express ourselves,” said Brooks-Lucas. “It’s important to be able to talk about the things that are happening to us in a free-form discussion so African American women know they share the same concerns, whether they’re in corporate America or small businesses,” Brooks-Lucas said.



Jill Porter is an MBA student at Clark Atlanta University.  “I worked in health insurance for 14 years, but as a MBA student I’m moving into a different industry and I want to be sure I’m moving in the right direction to fit in as an African American woman,” Porter remarked.


Moreover, what about the impact the down economy has on a corporation’s need to honor its pledge to diversity in the workplace?  “The economy will always have some impact on the number of jobs that are available. It also has an impact on growth opportunities,” said PepsiCo’s Senior VP of Global Diversity and Community Affairs Ronald E. Harrison. “Retention of African American women is still a big factor. The best way to retain people is to have environments where everybody feels they can grow, they feel nurtured, and feel they are making a difference. You need to make sure the environment is healthy for your employees, ” Harrison said. 


Dr. Price Cobbs, an internationally acclaimed psychiatrist and corporate management consultant, said the symposium had no barriers.  “People here are more personal, they talk about things that they would not discuss in other venues, and can be more honest with themselves about what’s going on in their organizations.” Attendees received an autographed copy of his book, Cracking the Corporate Code, co-authored by Judith Turnock, Esq. “We’re hoping that those in attendance today will get more in touch with their challenges, rediscover their strengths, and refine their networks by meeting new people and developing new resources,” Cobbs said.


Joy can come in the morning. Great is the anticipation that this year’s attendees will feel comfortable enough to invite their bosses to a future session where both can listen, learn and relate.


INTERVIEW: Symposium speaker Dr. Ella Bell is an associate professor of Business Administration, Tuck School, Dartmouth College and co-author of Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women Struggle for Professional Identity (Harvard Business School Press, 2001)


Johnson:  Please tell me about your book.


Bell:  Our goal was to take the experiences of executive and managerial African American women out of the shadows of White women because everything we have read about in the literature on women and careers was about White women. When you would read about the minority experience in corporations, it is basically about Black men. Black women’s experiences are literally falling in between the cracks – as if they didn’t exist. We have to do something about that.  This study took nine years to complete and was funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.


The book looks at three things:

1.      How Black and White women enter corporate America, the journeys in their lives before they got there, early life experiences that formed and shaped them

2.      After winding up in corporate America, how they navigated their lives once they got there

3.      Their relationship with each other in the workplace


Johnson:  Most of what is being said today is not news. Everyone knows Black women have had a hard time in this country and in corporate America.  How is this meeting different from one attended by all White males?


Bell:  I would not capsulate this as a meeting. This is like going to church to get dusted off so we can shine. Women have come here to learn to renew themselves. We are bombarded, particularly in the workplace and our communities. As a result, we need more introspection and reflection - what am I bringing to the table, what do I need to let go of.  The beauty in this is that I’m not alone; there are other men and women in that struggle.  We can find solutions and heal.


Johnson:  What is the major defining factor that women can hone in on in order to become successful in the corporate world?


Bell:  You have to recognize that there is a lifestyle or way of life that means you’re going to work long hours, you’re going to have to develop yourself, and you’re going to have to work hard with other people. You’re going to have to let White people into your life, whether they want to be there or not. Once you get there, you better be very clear about what you want, what you want to accomplish, and what your vision of yourself is. You have to determine what resources you will need, internal and external, to get there. You may have to go get an MBA from a good school, develop a network and get involved with a group such as the Leadership Council, and build authentic relationships. That’s more than saying to someone, “Here’s my business card.”


◄ BP’s Paula Banks speaks to Dr. Bell during symposium break.



Bell: Lastly, you’re going to have to find people in your company that can help you. Mentors AND sponsors are important. A sponsor may be a onetime meeting relationship with somebody who has power in the company and says, “I want her to have this position, and I want her to have the opportunity to be successful.”  That’s an important thing.  A mentor can’t do that.  You need not only a role model, but a sponsor; you’ve got to find a way to get people to sponsor you. You have to let people know of your accomplishments, you’ve got to be able to take feedback, to build relationships, and show that you can work on the team while maintaining your identify.


The bottom line is that you’ve got to bring all yourself in the door. A lot of times, African Americans feel they have to hide parts of themselves. Until you learn to use all that you have effectively, you can’t manage or lead effectively.  Leadership requires all of you.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.  Being good isn’t being nice, or being a good girl; it means being the best that you can be and bringing out the best in others.


Johnson: I’ve been noticing that all the women on the panel, including you, were the first or the only Black women in your work setting.  We’re in an age now, though, when you have a lot of talented African American females in corporate America and there seems to be only so many places where we can fit in. Encompassed in all that, we have a down economy. What words of encouragement can you give to the masses of Black women who are trying to get ahead?


Bell:  That’s a good question. I can see that your ego is in the right place. I don’t believe that everybody needs to be in corporate America. There are a lot of other ways we can use our leadership abilities. I don’t see the corporate domain as being the only place where we can work. There’s leadership needed in education, in health, and human services. I know those are traditional fields, but everybody cannot fit in corporate America. If you really want to be in a business arena, START YOUR OWN! I’m amazed at the people who have been in corporate America and they don’t think about ways of building connections to start their own businesses in the Black community.


We keep talking about economic development in our communities. Why isn’t it happening? One reason is that the people who have skills, resources, experience, ideas, vision, drive, know how, don’t come back to the community because we’re all trying to fit into corporate America. Get your experience in corporate America, figure out what you want to do, and then go out and do it! It’s a risk; it takes courage. What we do need are businesses in technology and communications, and a myriad of other avenues. We need to be more entrepreneurial.


Johnson:  The only problem with that is economics – small business cannot compete with the big boys.


Bell:  It is an economic problem, and we can’t fix that. My response to you is while you may not be able to compete against the big boys, you have to network with other people to make your business bigger rather than you being out there alone. You have to figure out where the big boys are and how you can stand next to them. It is hard, but it is something that we need to do.


Johnson:  What do you hope everyone will gain from getting together today?


Bell:  I hope they get a healing, a dusting off. There’s always hope. You have to declare what you want. I hope women will be able to come out of this session using their voices to declare what they want manifested in their lives and believing that it can happen.




Sidebar: Best Practices in Achieving Workforce Diversity identifies common themes among nine employers with exceptional success in building diverse staffs. For more information on best practices, go to: and


The information in this article is the opinion of the author and, therefore, should not be construed as libelous.