For Black Women Administrators, Merit Is Not Enough'African American women need to be politically aware of the operation of race and gender in their specific organizations.'
Deeply ingrained in American culture is the belief that hard work plus education will lead to social and economic success, regardless of gender, race or class. This “meritocracy myth” or “achievement ideology” has motivated minority women and men to stay in school and pursue their dreams.
What happens when a hard-working high achiever discovers that her race and gender do matter after all? Dr. Brenda Lloyd-Jones, associate professor and associate department chair of human relations at the University of Oklahoma–Tulsa, spoke about this tension at the University of Nebraska conference on Women in Educational Leadership in Lincoln NE in October 2011.
Most minority women and men who reach high-ranking university positions were raised on a belief that education plus hard work equals success. They accept this, attribute their success to it and teach their children and students to anticipate similar rewards if they stay in school and work hard.
Achievement ideology is a powerful motivator. “The success of people is based on their capabilities, merit and commitment. It’s up to you,” Lloyd-Jones said. At the same time, it ignores any social conditions that might keep people from attaining their goal. If your success is entirely up to you, then any barriers must be your own fault.
“The espousal of achievement ideology is prevalent in the African American community, and the community in which I came of age is no exception,” she told WIHE. Her parents lived out their belief in the American dream. Her mother left a paid job to give her children tutoring, emotional nurturing and academic support. Her father worked a fulltime job plus another part-time to pay for the children to attend private schools.
Two of their kids became valedictorians and two went to Ivy League colleges. “Academic preparation and diligent work continue to be two essential components to black female career success in the academy,” she said. But they don’t level the playing field. While vitally important, they are not equalizers.
Her interest in campus equity began with a bachelor’s degree in communication disorders and a master’s in audiology and speech pathology. She built a career as an audiologist, working with older adults and children who were deaf or hard of hearing.
Her work made her aware of the ways that power differences and social identities affect access to resources. Her PhD studies at the University of Tulsa pointed her research toward demographic shifts and dimensions of diversity in organizational leadership, including age and disability as well as gender, race and ethnicity.
She is co-editor (with Dr. Gaetane Jean-Marie) of a twovolume set, Women of Color in Higher Education: Turbulent Past, Promising Future and also Women of Color in Higher Education: Contemporary Perspectives and Changing Directions (2011).
Black women, white campus
Women of color have a long tradition of leadership as founders, presidents, deans and department chairs at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), especially those that initially targeted women students.
But they’re next to invisible at predominantly white institutions, despite such notable exceptions as presidents Ruth Simmons at Brown University RI and Shirley Ann Jackson at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute NY.
Women of color made up 10.6% of professors in fulltime administrative positions in 2007; men of color were another 7.4%. Just over half of those were African American (women 6%, men 3.9%), serious under-representations compared with the U.S. population or the student body.
Unconscious bias toward women leaders follows from the contrast between ideals of leadership and racial or ethnic stereotypes. Many Latinas run businesses but they’re rarely asked to serve on boards. Asian Americans are stereotyped as brainy but passive, without the personality required for leadership.
Like Latinas and Asian American women, African American women face discrimination based on race and gender intertwined. One study found that stereotypes about white women focused mainly on their skills, while stereotypes of black women had more to do with their identities.
White male cultural traits influence not only paradigms of leadership but also general expectations of interpersonal behavior. Where is the line between assurance and audacity? Between assertion and aggression? Between courtesy, deference and lack of self-confidence? The answers vary by culture.
Navigating academia is hard enough for most people. Add unspoken cultural assumptions and expectations, and the challenge for women of color can be huge. It’s aggravated at predominantly white schools by most people’s tendency to socialize with others who look like themselves, leaving women of color out in the cold.
Isolation, loneliness and lack of trust compound the effects of racism and sexism as barriers to African American women’s full participation in the upper levels of academia. These factors affect their job satisfaction and retention. Schools that avoid addressing issues in campus culture may pay a deep price.
One woman’s story
“Dr. Harris” (a pseudonym) is an African American woman in senior administration at a predominantly white research university. Lloyd-Jones interviewed her as a qualitative case study to learn how she navigated past the barriers to reach academic success.
When Harris was growing up, the two fields open to black women were nursing and teaching. This reflected both the constraints on all women in that period and the legacy of slavery, when slave women were responsible for childcare and domestic service.
She chose teaching. Her first job after college was teaching elementary school in the Midwest. Upon completing a master’s degree in counseling, she was a grade school counselor for two years. Then she began doctoral study, including an internship in higher education that focused on educational psychology.
Her career in higher education administration started with three years as a staff psychologist at a public university in the Midwest, which she left for a position with greater responsibilities. Later she moved to a university in the South as an assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral science.
Now an upper-level administrator at a research university where most of her colleagues are white, she says they view her as an African American first and as a woman second. By contrast, women students and women faculty see her as an African American woman.
Among her many accomplishments, she increased black student enrollment in her medical school by 150%. She proposed the curriculum changes that raised their students into the top 20% on national medical board examinations. She’s a positive role model for women on campus.
She attributes her career success to her:
The first four factors are at the core of achievement ideology. Education is the key to attracting opportunity; one can’t get onto the invitation list for an opportunity without the right credentials and qualifications.
Reading the organizational culture
“While education and hard work are salient to success in life, they are not the sole determinants of goal attainment. Political astuteness, mentorship and sponsorship are among the other areas of knowledge and skill sets necessary to African American women’s career trajectory in higher education,” Lloyd-Jones said.
Firmly believing that education and hard work would bring success regardless of race, Harris was very surprised by her first political confrontation. She had hoped to learn a lot from her immediate supervisor, the associate dean of the medical school, who was a white woman generally viewed as highly competent and powerful.
Instead their relationship began to deteriorate after the dean of student affairs (a white man) showed an interest in her career. He presented her with opportunities to serve on major committees and formulate policies, bringing her broad visibility but tension with her immediate supervisor. She eventually resigned to take a different position at another university where the culture was more supportive.
In other examples of resistance, some people who reported to her implied that they could never comfortably accept an African American as their supervisor; they went around her to get clearance for their assignments. Men in administration delivered messages through their administrative assistants instead of meeting with her personally, as they did with white colleagues.
Developing the ability to read the organizational culture enabled her to surmount these challenges and progress in her career. “Success is a lot about timing—knowing when to stay and when to leave a position or an institution,” she told Lloyd-Jones.
Reading organizational culture has been described as the ability to align personal career aspirations with organizational goals. Essential for everyone, it’s especially important for African American women. Often isolated and holding marginalized positions, they can find it hard to distinguish the school’s stated theory from its actual practices.
‘Good, honest and fair’
“When I first entered administration at the university level, I believed that everyone was good, honest and fair,” Dr. Harris told Lloyd-Jones. Like traditional African cultures, African American culture today emphasizes interdependence and cooperation to ensure the survival of the group. This is in stark contrast to the individualistic, competitive orientation of white Western cultures.
After several incidents, she became less trusting and more politically aware. She has still not achieved the right to make autonomous decisions. Her responsibilities once called for her to choose a qualified person for a position. She evaluated the applicants and told her white male boss whom she had chosen. He said he had someone else in mind and, without further discussion, astonished her by offering the position to the other person.
This pitted her beliefs against her experience. She firmly believed in meritocracy, that anyone can make it in America with enough dedication, competence and educational credentials. But her experience said otherwise. Despite her superior track record, she learned that her decisions could be dismissed out of hand by someone whose power and privilege came from being a white man.
“African American women need to be politically aware of the operation of race and gender in their specific organizations,” Lloyd-Jones said. They need to develop such political skills as setting an agenda, mapping the political terrain, networking, forming coalitions, bargaining and negotiating. Neither graduate programs nor everyday life can reliably teach these skills. Mentorship, sponsorship and academic support are among the best ways to learn. Women of color can seek out mentors and sponsors, build networks and consciously build their political knowledge.
Black women and others who achieve tenure and promotion can reach out to support women on their way up. They can serve on boards and committees that influence policies and procedures limiting full participation by women and academics of color.
Departments or universities can pair women of color with key individuals who can provide academic and social mentoring. Colleagues can collaborate with African American women on research and publishing opportunities. They can serve as advocates for diverse leadership styles and the changing face of leadership.
Merit is essential, but alone it is not enough.
Contact her at
Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2012, April). For Black Women Administrators, Merit Is Not Enough. Women in Higher Education, 21(4), 13-14.