By Adia Harvey Wingfield
Harvard Business Review, April 11, 2018 —
It’s no secret that black people are widely underrepresented in the highest-status professional jobs. Even when they have Harvard MBAs, black women are generally absent in leadership positions at most Fortune 500 companies, and black men are in high-ranking roles in only a handful.
Researchers who have examined black women in corporate settings generally highlight their unique experiences not just as black workers but as black womenworkers. Dealing with racism and sexism means that black women in these settings face particular challenges at work, from difficulty finding mentors and sponsors to extra scrutiny of their hair and other aspects of their appearance.
These are important findings that give some insight into how race and gender operate together to yield specific outcomes for black women. But they only reveal part of the picture for black workers. Black men, of course, are also present in professional work. How are their experiences in these settings driven by race and gender — and how do they differ from the experiences black men have in other types of occupations?
In white male–dominated professions like law, engineering, or medicine, black men are in the majority because of their gender, but in the minority due to their race. Consequently, they occupy a somewhat contradictory position where they simultaneously fit in even while they stand out. It’s not quite the token experience that Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes in her classic study of women working in male-dominated spaces. Those women, mostly white, were constantly reminded of the ways they stood out, faced a paradox of visibility and invisibility, and were relegated to gender-typed positions as secretaries or wives even when they were high-ranking executives. Black men’s experiences in these types of environments are a bit more complicated.
Two of my recent research studies touch on the ways that black professional men navigate predominantly white work settings. In one, I conducted intensive interviews with 42 black men working in high-status occupations — doctors, lawyers, engineers, and bankers. I found that these men’s relationships with other men in their workplaces were informed by gender and race in unique ways.
For one thing, most of my respondents described largely amiable relationships with their white male coworkers. Unlike women of all races, who have to walk a fine line in male-dominated professions — for example, being friendly without seeming sexual, being assertive without coming across as aggressive — black men could fairly easily capitalize on culturally masculinized interests and activities to forge a bond with their white male colleagues.
Jason, an engineer, told me: “One of my friendships [with a supervisor] was established through working out. We work out every morning, and we talk every morning and have coffee together in the morning. I think [that’s one of] the advantages men have, just working out.” This experience reflects research from sociologist Catherine Turco, who shows that for black men in the leveraged buyout industry in particular, sports are a key way to bond with white men in ways that are often unavailable to women.
For many black men in these settings, gender is something they are able to capitalize on so that white men can become friends, colleagues, and peers. As Max, an engineer, put it, “If you’re male and African American, you don’t have the double bias [that women face]. You’re a minority, but you can befriend the other male colleagues. And maybe they won’t like you, but there are enough senior male colleagues that one of them will like you, and you can get the information you need. So it’s much different for a female…than an African American male, because I’m a male, and a lot of the restrictions that male colleagues will put on their interactions with females in the department don’t exist for me.”
But race matters for black men in these settings too. While they can capitalize on shared gendered experiences to bond with white men, who can serve in important roles as allies, sponsors, and mentors, they describe a sense of alienation and isolation on the job. This comes from the fact that fitting in with white colleagues has its limits, and from the sense that only other black men can really understand the challenges associated with being black and male in these spaces — the persistent negative stereotyping, the complicated dance of managing interactions with white women to avoid appearing threatening, the need to avoid ever being perceived as the “angry black man.”
Yet with so few other black professional men being in these spaces, opportunities to bond and form allegiances are often infrequent. And even in the rare cases when other black men work in the office, gendered conditioning tends to encourage men to be stoic and independent. This means that many black men don’t feel equipped to reach out to other black men to develop meaningful friendships because “that’s what women do.” In the words of Jared, a lawyer, “When it comes to women in a large law firm, I would imagine they would be closer. Because I just feel like [with] men and the experiences that I’ve had with men in this profession, we’re not really about all crying on each other’s shoulders. Although we are here to help out if we can, or to bounce ideas off of, I don’t know if we’re necessarily as close as maybe women are.”
Still, the types relationships that black men have with other men can be drastically different depending on their occupation. In a forthcoming book on black workers in the health care industry, I show that while black men working in the male-dominated field of medicine find it much easier to connect with white colleagues, black men working in the female-dominated profession of nursing face extensive barriers in their attempts to forge ties with the white men they encounter at work. They struggled to bond with white men, who rarely seemed interested in connecting and often stymied their efforts to advance. As Curtis, an orthopedic nurse, told me, “It’s almost like you have to take your ideas and give them to somebody else, and let them present for you, and you get no credit for it.”
Sociologist Christine Williams has shown that for white men, work in female-dominated professions can actually provide more opportunities for advancement. Given that, it may be that white male nurses try to maintain their racial and gendered advantages, and actively exclude black men from opportunities to advance. If so, this opportunity hoarding is compounded by the fact that black male nurses rarely encountered other black male colleagues who might sympathize, making the sense of isolation even more acute. Here, race and gender created experiences among black men that are more akin to the “chilly climate” that many women experience in STEM fields as they confront harassment and hostility from colleagues that leads to systemic disadvantage. Because working in the female-dominated profession of nursing left black men in the minority due to both their race and gender, it may have created workplaces where they saw fewer allies and pathways to advancement than their counterparts in male-dominated fields.
Taken together, the experiences of black men in different occupations shows that context matters. In many ways, they are “outsiders within” in corporate America, and the particulars reflect their unique position of race and gender. This leaves them with workplace relationships and general experiences that differ starkly from those of other numerical minorities, particularly women, but also from black men in female-dominated professions. Because of this, it’s important for managers to be mindful of the ways that black professionals’ work experiences can vary widely, and that one-size-fits-all attempts to increase workplace diversity and to reduce racial tensions may be met with limited success.