My law school class more than thirty years ago was only about 20% women; today, most law schools have 50% or more female students. I recall attending a meeting of the Women Law Students Association, and realizing how nice it felt not to worry about gender issues, not to feel like I was “out of place.” I was probably less circumspect in my comments during that discussion than I would have been had I been in the minority as a female.
As a white professional and manager in a corporate setting, I was typically in the majority by race, but I recall two instances when I was the only white in the meeting.
One time was in a meeting to discuss a particular employee’s performance – all but one of the managers in this employee’s chain of command happened to be African American, and that white manager was not at the meeting. I was a white attorney outside the chain of command there to provide legal advice. On that occasion, I recall feeling that my company had “arrived” on the diversity front with this random occurrence of a mostly African American chain of command. But of course, it had taken many senior managers in that division many years of recruiting and development work before this happened.
The other occasion where I was the only white in a meeting was at a session during a Black MBA Convention where I was recruiting. On that occasion, I recall being very conscious of my race, and realizing that that is how most minorities feel most of the time.
Unlike my reticence in my male-dominated law school classes, I felt very free at that Black MBA meeting to voice my opinions. I wondered, however, whether my outspokenness was due to (1) the maturity I had gained in the twenty or so years since law school, or (2) my “status” as a member of the majority race, whereas in law school I had been of the minority gender. I will probably never know the answer to that, but at least I was self-aware enough to recognize my behavior and to ask myself the question.
I wonder how many white males would have had that same awareness. When I told my husband this story, he had no idea what I was talking about. Although diversity sensitivity and self-reflection are not among his strengths.
The Wharton School of Business published an article on their Knowledge @ Wharton online newsletter on August 29, 2012, entitled “Race, Gender and Careers: Why ‘Stuffing the Pipeline’ Is Not Enough”. The article describes research by Wharton professor Katherine L. Milkman and Harvard Business School professor Kathleen L. McGinn, which found that placing professionals of one race or gender all in the same work unit led to lower retention of those professionals.
Although there was greater social cohesion in these work groups – like I had found with the Women Law Student Association – the members of the groups perceived they were competing against each other for limited opportunities for advancement. They perceived there were “quotas,” whether there were or not. In addition, they perceived structural marginalization – the saw their work unit as a “ghetto.
The conclusion of this research:
“Attempts to design employment practices that are blind to the demographics of candidates are likely to succeed only if all candidates perceive and receive equal mentoring, sponsorship, and peer support regardless of their race and gender.”
Milkman is quoted in the article as follows:
“Having mentors and role models who look like you is important. But, more interestingly, we see these negative effects associated with being in a work group with lots of competitors for promotion who resemble you demographically.”
In other words, it may be helpful to have opportunities in cohesive groups for interaction, but the workplace with its competition and race for advancement needs to be open.
What has your experience been with race and gender in homogenous work groups?