Women as Leaders: Factors that Affect Career and Personal Success for Black, Female Leaders and Strategies to Overcome Them

Women as Leaders: Factors that Affect Career and Personal Success for Black, Female Leaders and Strategies to Overcome Them

Cheryl D. White
Wayne State University

Tonisha B. Lane
Michigan State University

Ayanna McConnell
University of Michigan

Shetina M. Jones
Michigan State University

Stacey N. Jackson
Oakland Community College

In celebration of our 40th Anniversary, members of the Standing Committee for Women are pleased to sponsor a Series in Developments. Our Series, “Women As,” explores how women’s intersecting identities (race, class, gender expression and performance, sexuality, religion, etc.) impact women’s experiences in different roles. Thus, authors share their ideas as women who are leaders, faculty, caregivers, and/or students. In support of a feminist approach to research and learning, articles will reflect an array of insights including practical strategies, research findings, lessons learned, arts-based research, visual inquiry, narrative inquiry, and reflections. We encourage you to utilize the discussion questions included in each article to stimulate your thinking and enhance your work in the classroom and/or workplace.

Many women who are employed outside of the home have the challenge of balancing their work life along with their personal lives. For Black women, balancing their work life also includes dealing with racism, tokenism, and isolation. Although White women have been subject to oppression because of their gender, they are still privileged based on their race (Accapadi, 2007). In contrast, African American women experience the lowest status in importance and standing behind White men, White women, and African American men (Zamani, 2003). Black women are often employed in small, four-year public institutions in urban areas that enroll large numbers of minority and female students (Henry, 2010). Although the number of White female administrators has increased steadily at all levels and ranks, the gains of Black female administrators, particularly at predominately White institutions (PWIs), has remained relatively small (Holmes, 2003). Due to their small numbers, African American women encounter many barriers alone (Henry & Glenn, 2009). They are often identified as “angry Black women” when they assert themselves in their management or leadership style (Henry, 2010). These issues and conditions make it difficult for Black women to feel supported and valued in the workplace.

Accounting for the aforementioned factors, how do Black women in student affairs balance their professional and personal lives? This article provides an overview of the challenges Black women face in the workplace and strategies to overcome them. Specifically, it utilizes Black Feminist Thought and Intersectionality as frameworks to explore race and gender bias, tokenism, and workplace and personal life challenges. The article concludes with recommendations that could be employed to overcome these challenges. ¹

Theoretical Concepts

Black Feminist Thought: Black feminist thought can be used to explore the nature of one’s intersecting identities and experiences in postsecondary education work settings. Black feminism allows “African American women to examine how the particular constellation of issues affecting Black women in the United States are part of issues of women’s emancipation and struggles globally” (Collins, 1996, p. 13). Moreover, Collins (2000) argues that Black feminist thought “aims to empower African American women within the context of social justice sustained by intersecting oppressions” (p. 22). It is the assertion of Black feminist thought that Black women have occupied marginal positions in society (Collins, 2000). They are often considered to be outsiders, because they are African American women working in a White, male dominated world (Collins, 2000). Though higher education has made great strides to recruit, retain, and promote Black women to critical positions of power and influence in the academy, disparities and inequities that uniquely shape the daily lives of Black, female administrators still exist (Holmes, 2003). Due to the intersectionality of race, class, and gender, studies show that Black women continue to face racism, sexism, double jeopardy, isolation, and tokenism in the workplace, particularly at PWIs (Burgess, 1997; Gregory, 1995; Holmes, 2003).

Intersectionality: Intersectionality is an “analysis claiming that systems of race, social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and age form mutually constructive features of social organization which shape Black women’s experiences, and in turn, are shaped by Black women” (Collins, 2000, p. 299). The intersectionality of identities creates different lived experiences and social realities for Black women. Our interactions at work, in the home, and in the community are influenced by how we see the world and how the world sees us. Consistent with the literature and the experiences of the authors, Black women may take on more responsibilities, because they feel, and are often told, that this is the way to prove their worth and to be recognized (Holmes, 2003, 2008; Taylor, 2005).

Additionally, as one of the authors contends from her lived experience, women who are single and/or do not have children are often given more responsibilities than others within a department as employers may assume that these employees have more time, because they are not married and/or do not have a family. The oppression faced by Black women because of their intersecting identities is not only interrelated but bound together (Collins, 2000). Black women cannot separate their identities to render the benefits of one identity over another in a given context. Some scholars suggest that this inability to compartmentalize Black women’s marginality places them in a “double bind” (Collins, 2000). Furthermore, the oppression and resiliency experienced by Black women affirms their commonalities, yet no one experience is exactly alike.


Race and Gender Bias: African American women traditionally have faced both race and gender bias. According to Zamani (2003):

Black women have always been more conscious of and more handicapped by race oppression than by sex oppression. They have been subject to all the restrictions against Blacks and women. In no area of life have they ever been permitted to attain higher levels of status than White women. Put more bluntly, African American women traditionally have been preceded by White men, White women, and African American men in importance and standing (p. 7).

Furthermore, some scholars suggest that the intersectionality of racial and gender bias is a “double whammy” (Holmes, 2008). As Holmes (2003) stated in her study on Black faculty, “…African American women suffer the ‘double whammy’ being both Black and female in academic environments that place little value on either trait” (p. 104). Similarly, in a social psychology study, Sesko and Biernat (2010) asserted that Black women were invisible to White women and Black and White men. In particular, Sesko and Biernat (2010) found that statements made by Black women were rarely attributed correctly to their involvement and participation in meetings when compared to Black men and White women and White men. Unfortunately, there are missed opportunities for Black women to grow and develop and make a significant contribution to the workplace if they are unnoticed and unheard because of their race and gender.

Career Advancement: An examination of Black female student affairs administrators’ perceptions of career advancement revealed that this group is exposed to unique barriers to career advancement, including lack of a supportive professional environment, lack of professional networking support, and gender discrimination (Henry, 2010). Although there are many women entering the student affairs profession, African American women continue to be underrepresented and will continue to be disproportionately represented in relationship to the number of African American female students on campus (Henry, 2010).

Even Black women working at PWIs and/or research universities face challenges regarding career advancement and networking. For instance, some Black women discover that they can only advance in a leadership role after they leave an institution and then return. This was personally experienced by one of the authors of this article, who shared the following experience:

I was told by more than one administrator that advancing my career might mean leaving the university and coming back. This turned out to be true, and I was able to come back to the university in a leadership role after leaving for four years. There have been some programs put into place to help with internal career advancement, but it still seems to be a problem for people at entry-level and mid-level points in their career, especially women of color (A. McConnell, personal communication, January 2013).

Tokenism: Kanter (1997) describes tokenism as a perfunctory effort or symbolic gesture toward racial integration where there is less than 15% of the total group. Black women can be described as “double tokens” or “double uncomfortable” (Sulé, 2009). “Double tokens” is used to describe Black women in PWIs who experience the workplace as one of society’s exclusive clubs to which, even though they have as much right as everyone else to be there, will never gain full membership. Sulé (2009) describes “double uncomfortable” as one’s identity intersects with the climate presented. An example of tokenism is provided below as experienced by a Black woman student affairs administrator:

Sometimes my meeting starts at 7:00 a.m. and ends with a program and dinner around 9:00 [p.m.] and often later. Honestly, it’s wearing me out. But there are not that many of us here, so I am always invited to be a keynote speaker or something like that (Holmes, 2003, p.55).

Workplace Challenges: African American women student affairs professionals experience barriers and challenges in the workplace, such as feelings of powerlessness and alienation (Burgess, 1997; Gregory, 1995; Holmes, 1999; Nelson, 1993). Black women experience pressure to be the lone voice and prove themselves more than anyone else. Workplace challenges may also involve working with other Black women who may not be good colleagues or ask for promotional favors (Henry, 2010). With so few Black women in positions of leadership, they are often tapped to represent all African Americans, even if they have differing viewpoints.

African American women in leadership positions often feel that their power is regularly challenged. Black women have to constantly ensure that their voice is not being diminished when offering their position on issues. Additionally, African American women who attend meetings and do not say much may be perceived as weak. At the same time, if one is too vocal or opinionated, she will be perceived as overly aggressive (Crews, 2007).

Personal Life Challenges: Black female leaders also experience personal life challenges. They are expected to be “superwomen,” on the job as well as at home, especially for those who have spouses and/or children. Unconsciously, some Black women place this burden on themselves. Starting from a young age, many Blacks are taught, by their elders, that they have to be better and do more to be recognized in the workplace (Taylor, 2006). This message is often reinforced when Blacks discover that they do not receive opportunities for advancement and salary increases at the same rate as their non-Black counterparts (Holmes, 2003, 2008).

According to Taylor (2005), many Black women feel that when they advance to leadership positions in student affairs and other areas in higher education, they should shoulder the multiple roles and responsibilities without question. Taylor (2005) describes her own experience of trying to obtain her doctoral degree in two and a half years while working as a full-time administrator, adjunct faculty member, and also being a wife and mother. Because of her multiple roles, she began experiencing stress and physical exhaustion, and her husband and family were being neglected and never saw her. By the time of her dissertation defense, she was suffering physically and mentally. Her advice is to heed the phrase “put yourself first” (Taylor, 2005, p.203). Black women who have families are expected to handle the traditional roles of the household (i.e., cooking and cleaning) in addition to working full-time outside of the home. For instance, the authors juggle multiple roles and responsibilities such as caring for immediate family members, seeking advanced degrees, caring for aging parents, and being active in community organizations. Although women of all races may have to manage this juggling act, Black women must also manage and overcome instances of racism, tokenism, and/or sexism at their place of employment (Taylor, 2006; Holmes, 2008).

Overcoming Barriers

Black women in student affairs must overcome barriers in both their work and personal life in order to be successful in both arenas. The following strategies, both from the literature and the authors’ experiences, can help to achieve balance at work and home.

Be strategic about what you get involved with and build alliances across departments.

It is impossible to be involved on every committee on campus, even those that focus on minority and/or African American issues. Although committee work may be expected in senior student affairs positions, consider your role and expectations on the committee. Build alliances across departments by periodically collaborating on projects or co-sponsoring events.

Understand the workplace environment.

Learning the culture and expectations of your particular work place is a key factor in senior student affairs leadership positions. Seek input from key stakeholders in the department before implementing major changes (Henry, 2010).

Seek multiple mentors and role models to help you navigate your career goals.

Mentors should be from a variety of cultural backgrounds and different areas of need as the diverse perspectives can help to develop a well-rounded sense of professionalism. Identify one or more individuals that know the culture of the department/institution (Henry, 2010).

Know yourself.

This strategy requires that you are grounded in a positive self-concept with an awareness of your skills, abilities, and goals so that you can ascertain what you may be lacking and improve in those areas. You should develop a five-year plan and conduct an annual review to evaluate your progress. Within your plan, you should venture to try new things and challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone.

Become involved in professional development.

Actively participate in professional organizations that are aligned with your career and professional goals. Your state (or neighboring/regional) College Personnel Association or an ACPA standing committee or commission can provide such opportunities.

Remain close to family and friends.

They can provide nurturing and support especially when considering new leadership positions and advanced degrees (Henry, 2010).

Maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Many of the health challenges experienced by African Americans can be reduced by regular exercise, wise lifestyle choices, and maintaining a spiritual foundation.

Take advantage of employer programs that offer flexibility.

Telecommuting or an alternative work schedule may be an option (Axa-Equitable, 2012).


As African American women leaders in student affairs, we must keep afloat in the troubled waters of sexism and racism. In order to accomplish this;

…the myth of the ‘angry Black Woman’ must be demystified, debunked, and replaced with the image of an assertive and socially savvy African American female activist who exudes a strong, balanced self-identity and advocates on her behalf and for other Black women (Henry, 2010, pp. 13-14).

Furthermore, African American women must continue to research and document their experiences, with a specific focus on their contributions and successes in an effort to chisel away at the boulder of victimization that often obstructs the accomplishments of African American female student affairs administrators (Henry, 2010).


  1. Throughout this article Black and African American are used interchangeably.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you feel that the challenges discussed are specific to Black women only or can they be applied to all women?
  2. Do you feel that being a Black woman played a role in being hired for your current position?
  3. As Black women in leadership positions, what types of experiences have you had with your colleagues (Holmes, 2003)? In what ways are these experiences different across race and gender?


Accapadi, M.M. (2007). When White women cry: How White women’s tears oppress women of color. College Student Affairs Journal, 26(2), 208-215.

Axa Equitable Life Insurance Company. (2012). Balancing work and family. Retrieved from http://www.axa-equitable.com/learning-center/womens-guide/balancing-work…

Burgss, N. J. (1997). Tenure and promotion among African American women in the academy: Issues and strategies. In L. Benjamin (Ed.), Black women in the academy: Promises and perils (pp. 227-234).  Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought. New York, NY: Routledge.

Collins, P. H. (1996). What’s in a name? Womanism, Black feminism, and beyond. The Black Scholar 26(1), 12.

Crews, L.C. (2007). The experiences of African American administrators at predominantly White two-year and four-year institutions. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.

Gregory, S.T. (1995).  Black women in the academy: The secrets to success and achievement. Lanham, NY: University Press of America, Inc.

Henry, W. J. (2010). African American women in student affairs: Best practices for winning the game. Advancing Women in Leadership Journal, 30(24). Retrieved from http://advancingwomen.com/awl/awl_wordpress/

Henry, W., & Glenn, N. (2009). Black women employed in the ivory tower: Connecting for success.  Advancing Women in Leadership, 29(1), 20-18. Retrieved from http://advancingwomen.com/awl/awl_wordpress

Holmes, S. L. (2003). Black female administrators speak out: Narratives on race and gender in higher education. National Association of Student Affairs Professionals Journal6(1), 45-65.

Holmes, S. L. (2008). Narrated voices of African American women in academe. Journal of Thought, 43(3), 101-124.

Nelson, J. (1993). Volunteer slavery: My authentic Negro experience. In K. M. Vaz (Ed.), Black women in America(p. 13). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Sesko, A. K., & Biernat, M. (2010). Prototypes of race and gender: The invisibility of Black women. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology46(2), 356-360.

Sulé, V.T.(2009).  Professional socialization, politicized raced and gendered experience, and black female graduate students. In V.B Bush, C.R. Chambers., &Walpole (Eds.) From diplomas  to doctorates: The Success of Black women in higher education and its implication for equal educational opportunities for all (pp.  111-130). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Taylor, C.M. (2005). Superwoman lives, (at least in my head): Reflections of a mid-level professional in student affairs  College Student Affairs Journal, 24 (2), 201-203.

Zamani, E. M. (2003). African American women in higher education. New Directions for Student Services, 104, 5-18.

About the Authors

Cheryl D. White, M.A., Ed. Spec. Cert., is an Extension Program Coordinator at Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit, MI, and has over 30 years of experience in higher education student affairs, including academic advising, career services, and extension programming. Cheryl is a doctoral candidate in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies/Higher Education Administration program at WSU. Her research focuses on the relationship of learning communities and retention of at-risk African American students.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Cheryl D. White .

Tonisha B. Lane, M.A., is a fourth year doctoral student in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on underrepresented students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. She has over eight years of student affairs and higher education experience.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Tonisha B. Lane.

Ayanna McConnell, M.A., manages Student, Diversity and Young Alumni Programs at the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan, and has a 15-year career in higher education spanning student services and academic affairs. She is also a third year doctoral student in Educational Leadership at Eastern Michigan University. Ayanna’s research interests include succession planning and mentoring of African American administrators in higher education.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Ayanna McConnell .

Shetina M. Jones, M.A., is an Office of Cultural and Academic Transitions Area Coordinator at Michigan State University. Shetina has been in the student affairs field for over five years. Her research interests are African American female students, minority student higher education access, academic success, and challenges. She plans to start a Ph.D. program in Higher Education in Fall 2014.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Shetina M. Jones.

Stacey N. Jackson, M.A., is the Coordinator of Student Development at Oakland Community College. She has over 15 years of experience in higher education that includes work in multicultural affairs, student affairs, career advising, and as a part-time faculty member. Stacey is also a doctoral student at Eastern Michigan University in the department of Urban Education. Her research interests include mentoring, equal educational opportunity, social justice and college readiness.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Stacey N. Jackson.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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