October 27, 2004
Mary Ann Travis
Black women face daunting disadvantages in the workplace. Even when they have college degrees, they come up short in pay and promotions.
But when black women do rise to positions of power, they do so using a tried-and-true technique that white men, unconsciously or not, have profited from forever -- networking.
James Elliott, assistant professor of sociology, is co-author of "Race, Gender, and Workplace Power," published in the American Sociological Review.
He and Ryan A. Smith from City University of New York lay out their findings that show how race and gender overlap as factors in job promotions and access to organizational authority.
Elliott has been intrigued about issues of racial inequality ever since he was a boy living near public housing in North Carolina. A public bus picked him up for the 45-minute ride to school. "I was one of two white kids on the bus," he says.
When he arrived at the elementary school, his friends would go in one direction, and he'd head to the gifted class of mainly white children. "I had all these questions: Why was the class all white and my bus all black?" He says he negotiated between the two worlds of black and white, knowing something was amiss, "but in a way that I wasn't smart enough to articulate."
When he got to college and took his first sociology class, questions of social inequality popped up. "Finally," he thought, "these are the questions that I never figured out how to ask." He fell in love with sociology, a discipline that sometimes is labeled as "the social science that documents the obvious."
So while it may be obvious that race and gender discrimination operates in the workplace, there's more to discover, more "empirical details to flesh out," says Elliott. Elliott and Smith analyzed data from workers in three cities -- Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta.
The workers, they determined, were categorized as laborers, supervisors and managers. Laborers had no power, supervisors had some power, and managers had more power. Managers hire and fire and set people's pay.
"Managers have control over an organization's assets," says Elliott. The black women in the study who had achieved a managerial level recognized that networking helped them move up the organizational ladder. But networking benefits all workers -- black, white, Latino, male and female. The organizations in the study ranged from small shops with five workers to mega- companies with thousands of workers.
"We're not talking about the Fortune 500 elite," says Elliott. "We're talking about where most people work, in everyday jobs, like nurses and janitors."
Who moves into positions of power is a function of two forces, says Elliott. There's the force from above in the hierarchy where people in power prefer, for reasons of trust and comfort, to fill positions that report to them with people like themselves -- or "similar others." There's also the force from the bottom up. As more women and minorities have joined the employment ranks, there's less friction, less perception of discrimination, if those hired to manage them are of the same cultural and gender group as the workers they oversee.
As an example, Elliott says, "If I am a white man and I'm going to fill a managerial position with a white guy who is then going to oversee a bunch of black women, that can create tension. And I don't want tension."
Constantly at play in organizations is a trade-off between the comfort zone of superiors who are much more likely to fill positions of power with subordinates of the same race and sex as themselves versus the pressure to make sure things run smoothly in the diversified workplace. Major corporations such as Wal-Mart and Eastman Kodak have had class-action lawsuits alleging race and gender discrimination brought against them this year.
In the Wal-Mart case, 1.6 million women charge sex discrimination in employment practices, including hindrances to promotion. And black workers claim that Eastman Kodak discriminated against them in pay and access to authority. These kinds of cases may make other organizations pay attention to how power is bestowed and to whom, says Elliott.
Few organizations are proactive in making changes unless pressured. Most people in power wait to see how little they can get away with, hoping symbolic changes such as making someone a supervisor with a ostentatious title but no real power will be enough. But the diversified workforce is here with all its demands. People in power may have to listen up and open up. It comes down to enlightened self-interest and accountability, says Elliott.
"If you want to be the best organization you can be, and you are beholden to stockholders to be efficient and do a good job, pick the best person for the job." Elliott and Smith are in the process of expanding the article into a book. They hope employers will take note: "Sex and race discrimination are barriers not only to individual workers but also to social and economic progress." Such discrimination "limits our creative capacity and democratic dreams. And these are limits we should not accept."
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