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Ella L.J. Edmundson Bell Can You Name Five Black Women Business Leaders?

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Ella L.J. Edmundson Bell is determined to put women of color in positions of leadership in America’s top companies. She’s also on a mission to motivate her students to become better leaders

At Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, students in Ella Bell’s core class in leadership are a little surprised when the course begins with a showing of Disney’s The Lion King. The shock really sets in when Bell pulls out a tawny-maned puppet called Simba and proceeds to lecture the class.

“You should see their faces,” Bell says. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘I came to Dartmouth for this?’”

But like much about Bell and her research, the challenges and rewards lie below the surface.

“We talk about Simba’s journey and compare it to the heroic journey that you find in mythology. It’s about leadership and adversity,” she says. “We talk about [the character] Scar and the alter ego. I have to tell them it’s okay to laugh.”

Bell says that by deconstructing the fictional journey of a cartoon leader she can help her students define leadership as a mixture of skills, personality traits, character and life experience they hope one day to have.

Ella L.J. Edmonson Bell is an Associate Professor of Business Administration with a background in leadership development, especially for women and minorities. Her groundbreaking work studying the tremendous challenges faced by women of color in the workplace is recognized worldwide by business executives and academics alike, and she is a highly sought-after consultant to many companies working to find ways of recruiting and valuing the contributions of black women in the business world.

Her 2001 book, Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity (Harvard Business School Press), drew wide praise for its mix of em-pirical data collected from national surveys of black and white women managers; in-depth, personal interviews with women executives; and insightful analysis of the plight of black women working to gain ground in management.

Bell and coauthor Stella M. Nkomo, now at the University of South Africa, acknowledge that their book frankly discusses the inherent racism and sexism in the modern American workplace. “This book may be especially painful for black women,” they write, “who face special hurdles in the journey to the top, and who, when they get there, may find corporate America to be a lonely, hollow, haunted place.”

“Many black women feel invisible,” explains Bell. “They’re not invited to informal gatherings so they can’t network, they’re not given real responsibility, their contributions are seldom acknowledged and they are constantly being forced to prove themselves and having their authority challenged.”

“Black women are extremely frustrated,” Bell says. “Women just coming into the workplace, who may think their mothers fought and won these battles years ago, are finding that the work has just begun.”

“Women just coming into the workplace, who may think their mothers fought and won these battles years ago, are finding that the work has just begun.”

Bell grew up in New York City and began her career as a teacher in a public elementary school in the Bronx. Like many of the women she interviewed for Our Separate Ways, Bell took a circuitous route to her present position. In 1976 she was laid off along with 20,000 other public school teachers and found a job as an administrator for the Cleveland, Ohio, school system, where she was laid off again. She applied to the program in organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and earned her Ph.D. in 1987. Her thesis on the stresses placed on black women who work in the white world was the beginning of an eight-year inquiry into the challenges faced by women of color in the workplace, culminating in Our Separate Ways.

“When I went to school, everybody said, ‘Don’t go into race or gender [studies] because you’ll never find a job,’” recalls Bell. “Then, when we started our research, we were asked why there was a need for a study of black women in the workplace. Everybody assumed there weren’t any.”

Bell remembers what it was like to be able to count the number of black women faculty members in business schools in the United States on a single hand. When she and her colleagues asked white, male American executives to name a single black woman in a position of authority, the singer Lena Horne was the most frequent response.

“Lena Horne,” she says, shaking her head. “She’s a great singer but, seriously, you think Lena Horne is an executive?”

Bell’s study also found that black women who are promoted in the workplace often find themselves in a kind of limbo: highly visible because of their race and gender, but expected to submerge their racial and gender-specific personality traits and experiences. Bell’s research led to the striking conclusion that in addition to facing challenges from white male colleagues, black women found that black men and white women frequently employed sexist or racist assumptions in the workplace.

“No one would ever think of lumping white men and women together,” she says. “Nobody says, ‘Let’s study white people.’ But in studies of black people gender is frequently ignored, or in studies of women, black women are left out. Black women just fall through the cracks.”

Bell’s work compares the experiences of black and white women managers, many of whom worked for major U.S. companies. She found striking dissimilarities between perceptions of racial tension within offices, beliefs about a business’s commitment to diversity and observations of competition between women of different races for coveted spots on the management team. Perhaps most troubling were the stereotypes that women of one race, consciously or unconsciously, imposed upon women of the other race.

Particularly damaging to black women was what Bell termed “daily doses” of racism or what some of her subjects referred to as “normal” racism. This racism takes the form of invitations not being forwarded for after-hours get-togethers, assumptions about the economic or familial backgrounds of black women and a general coldness toward developing personal bonds with black women coworkers.

“Racism is going underground, becoming more subtle, more insidious,” Bell says. “No one, or almost no one, is going to shout ‘nigger’ in the office, but that doesn’t mean racism is gone.”

It troubles Bell that supportive bonds between women of different races are not being formed at the office.

“Many white women don’t even perceive it as a problem,” Bell says. “For them race is such a nonissue. It doesn’t even apply.”

According to Bell companies are going to have to start making changes soon if they want to take advantage of black women as one of their most underutilized and increasingly important assets.

“Black women and other women of color have so much to offer,” says Bell. “Companies are missing such talent, such leadership.”

Bell says that immediate intervention is necessary. Current black women employees need programs that help to heal them from the scarring racism they encounter on a daily basis. They need programs that teach leadership, coping and workplace navigation skills. They need companies to recognize the importance of hiring more than one black woman manager. Companies need to move beyond tokenism where minorities and women are recruited for highly visible positions to fulfill perceived quotas in organizational diversity, a practice black women more often fall victim to because of their perception as offering a “twofer” of race and gender. Most of all, Bell says, women need to break down racial barriers and work to support one another in the workplace.

As a professor, Bell explains, part of her job is to model leadership behavior for her students.

“I try to walk the walk,” she says. “Not that I’m always successful. But I try to show how leaders—and many of these students are going to become leaders—should behave themselves.”

For her leadership class, Bell asks her students to read biographies, autobiographies and memoirs by leaders, then challenges them to write their own life stories.

“I ask them to tell me what about their experience has prepared them to become leaders,” Bell says.

She also asks her students to find leaders among their own generation, then has them conduct interviews to determine what leadership skills these individuals possess that have allowed them to succeed.

“I try to help my students realize what people of different backgrounds might bring to the table,” she says. “Part of the reason I teach The Lion King is to encourage them to look at the ways leadership can come from unexpected locations.”

Besides teaching, conducting research, consulting and writing a monthly column for Essence magazine advising black women about the workplace, Bell is working to develop the National Leadership Institute for Women of Color. The organization will seek to advance women of color into positions of authority, responsibility and power in American companies, Bell says. The Institute [see sidebar], which will include a think tank of scholars and business leaders, will focus on leadership development, continued research on the experience of women of color in the workplace, consultation of organizations to diagnose structural barriers to advancement and increasing the number of women of color on corporate boards.

Bell sees this as the next step in her 20-year quest to improve the experiences of women in the workplace. As for her personal journey, taking her from New York City elementary school teacher to college professor and nationally-regarded expert, Bell feels that she has found the perfect mix of resources and support at Dartmouth.

“I feel like, at last, I’m in the right place,” she says.


The National Leadership Institute for Women of Color Program Description

A Plan for Moving Black Women Forward

By Ella L.J. Edmundson Bell

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