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The GEM Debate: Why Don’t Black Women Support Each Other In The Workplace?

Black business woman

I was talking to a good friend the other day when she asked me something that really threw me for a loop. I guess I thought, having achieved the level of success she has in her corporate career, she was immune to this trend. Maybe I thought because she wasn’t in TV, these issues didn’t pertain to her. But it was clear to me how wrong I was when Tracy took a deep breath and asked me, “Why don’t black women support each other?”  Oh dear.

Tracy is thin, attractive, whip smart and graduated from a big name school near the top of her class.  Warm, inviting, generous to a fault, she never met someone she wasn’t willing to give a fair shake to. But the pain in her voice was evident when she detailed how most of the relationships she’s experienced with other African American women in the working world, had been adversarial. And, as much as I hate to admit it, I understand. I really, REALLY do.

I remember early in my career, coming into a TV station where there was a well established, older, African American woman on staff. I had heard so much about her and was very much looking forward to learning from her. She, however, wanted noting to do with me.  The benign neglect would have been one thing; the truly heartbreaking aspect was when I’d catch her with a scowl on her face as she was looking in my direction or the times she gave cub reporters, mostly men and some white women, detailed instruction on how to get better but could only manage remarks to me through her clenched teeth. I finally gave up but never forgot that experience, which is why I go overboard to share what I know with anyone who asks.

When I told my work hubby, Richard about Tracy’s experiences and my own, he was aghast. As a gay man, working in media, he’s constantly telling me about the “Gay Mafia” who look out for each other, alerting each other of upcoming projects and in general supporting one another. And it’s not just gay men; it’s common with other ethnic groups as well. Even African American men support each other more or, at the very least, are not actively undermining those they work with.

Knowing the “what” doesn’t make the “why” any clearer, but if I had to guess the cause of this trend I would think it’s rooted in two things. The first is the “only room for one” phenomenon, the idea that whatever the field, it’s a zero sum game and another woman of color is competition.

The other factor, and I HATE to admit this, is that women are catty. I’m not perfect and have to say I’ve been guilty of this bad habit myself at times. It’s far easier to tear another woman down, leaving you the last one standing, than to link arms with her and work together to make a real difference.

But the big issue I have with this alarming trend is that it targets the wrong people for blame.  Shouldn’t we as black women be working together to make sure someone who looks like us, in gender and hue, gets the corner office? Wouldn’t that help the effort to get more representation among the people who do the hiring? And wouldn’t it be great if we learned to celebrate each other’s successes, confident that what we give, we get and at some point someone would be doing the same for us?

Alas, based on information I found out recently, I’m not sure how close we are to actually achieving that utopia. In the meantime, I’ll continue to do what I always have, offer support to those who ask, unconcerned with the false thinking that it weakens my position. Because the truth is, working together strengthens us as a whole. United we can move mountains.

Okay so I’m curious, if you are a black woman, what’s been your experience with other black female co-workers? Do you feel in constant competition? Do you think this is a phenomenon that other women in the workplace experience? Why do you think that is? Fire away!


  1. Shonda Taylor

    May 24, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    I think this is seriously a “woman” thing. I have worked mostly with white women and I find them to be catty, competitive and unwilling to help each other professionally. This is not true of all but more often than not it is the case. Other friends of mine have had similar experiences and have reluctantly admitted a preference for a male boss and co-workers. I really don’t find this to be a solely African American woman issue. It’s a woman issue.

  2. Robin Caldwell

    May 24, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    I’ve experienced the same, Rene. It’s heartbreaking and sadly, contagious. I’m guilty of having been suspicious of the younger, newer black woman. At the heart of it all is fear. Fear of replacement. If we lived in world, where we were not always the exception this would not be as prevalent. When I was reading your post, I remembered a revelation I had years ago and that is if we would put aside the fear and preconceived notions, we’d probably figure out that the threat was more imagined than real. We’d probably figure out that we all don’t even share the same goals professionally. The cattiness and competitiveness could be eliminated if we formed coalitions to help one another advance. My two cents…

  3. Deon Smith

    May 24, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Very interesting argument…However it also makes one wonder is the obligation necessary to support everyone within your own ethnic group. Not sure if this is a “black thing” or a “woman thing”. Certainly makes one think for sure. Ive definitely been in this position in the workplace from a black male’s perspective. But lets be CLEAR–it has always been a challenge for us blacks to be united in the work place. This is rarely seen in other ethnic groups like Asians and Latinos.

  4. Sylvia

    May 24, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Wow…I recently had this conversation with a friend. Yes, this still exist. I currently work with many african american people, but I do experience this non-speaking and non interested attitudes and behaviors from the AA women. The AA men are very approachable and helpful. Current events lately have shown AA women to act terrible in many ways, including the work place. I’m not ignorant of the ways of women and how people view us as a race period, but I’ve always tried to be fair and very opened minded to all.

  5. Wendy

    May 24, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    I agree with what Shonda said to some extent. Yes it is a “woman” thing because I have seen white women behave like this as well. However, almost always when they’re confronted by one another it ofter stops and the next thing you know they’re best friends and someone else (usually a non-white woman) becomes THEIR target!

    I also agree with Rene, I would be delighted if another black woman made it to the corner office. In fact, I would even try to help. I’m a firm believer in what is meant to be yours will be and what is meant to be mine will be. I am totally turned off by catty women. If I observe it, I usually run the other way and FAST because sooner or later I know that I will become their next target!

    It’s so sad that most blacks have that “crabs in the barrel” mentality and many non-black women know that and LOVE to play off of it. I once personally experienced this type of behavior in the work-place from a Caribbean woman and thought that she had a problem with me because I was not Caribbean but then one day I had dinner with one of my closet girlfriend who is Haitian and she told me that her most unsupportive co-worker was a fellow Haitian woman.

    It is so sad that black women don’t have that “sisterhood” that other ethnicities seem to have and this behavior starts in a very early age too. My daughter who is 13 years old is already experiencing this phenomenon and it’s sad. She goes to a predominately white school and the white girls who may not ALWAYS get along, seem to be more often than not supportive of each other where the few black girls spend so much time whispering about each other and putting each other down.

  6. Renee

    May 24, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    My managerial experience has been with other black women saying things to me like…they are just using you, I would not do that if I were you, I am not going to be an uncle Tom…but then take the very same managerial position when available.

    What I learned from this was…the very people you expect to support you are the very ones who will not, and it doesn’t matter what you do, some of your own will shoot you down…They are not going to be happy for you and are probably silently praying for you to fail.

    The reason some behave this way…competitiveness, fear and jealousy (yeah, I said it). Some of us want it but don’t know how to get it or are afraid to go for it. Fear that she will have a bigger house or nicer car. It is sad.

    I agree with you, Rene. If I can teach something I know to someone else, I have no problem with it at all…people would be surprised at what comes back to them when they give of themselves.

  7. Smarty P. Jones

    May 24, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I’ve heard about this. I’ve yet to see it. I hope I never do. I’ve been working in print media for 8 years now and every black woman I’ve encountered as a colleague and editor has been nothing short of helpful. They taught me a lot about journalism and about life in general. I only ever had a problem with one and that’s because I just didn’t like her and she didn’t like me, but we never had any issues at work.

    I agree with Rene that there probably is a “there can only be one” mentality in a lot of different environments, but I have never seen it. Things between women are about competition anyway. We’re always trying to one up each other with our hair, our clothes, shoes, bags. You name it, there are some women who somehow need to make themselves feel better about their situation by pointing out that they are better than you in some way. I don’t think it has anything to do with race.

    If Tracy has somehow upset another black woman in the workplace, it could be because she is excelling and the other NEEDS to pull that kind of behavior to feel better about herself. That’s a HER problem. That’s not a Tracy problem.

  8. Shawnta

    May 24, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    I find this to be so true. And I have been thru it before. I was working in a call center were my supervisor was younger than I however didn’t have the same education background or work experience for that matter and knew that I was doing a better job then she had when she first came out of training. Yet she continued to make it very hard on me to do my job and speak to me with a mean mug face most of the time. The only she was helpful was when I had to report her for speaking to me and other co-workers like a child. Whenever I did well she did nothing, but if my white gay male friend so much smiled, she was all over him with glee. Nevertheless, I was let go from that job based on her backstabbing and the company not wanting to let her go and move me to a different department as I requested due to the problems I was having. And to be honest, I was very good at my job, and other supervisors, black, white and Hispanic male and females stated this as well. So it is hard for certain people to support others when they feel threaten by them as she did me.

  9. Leading Lady O

    May 25, 2011 at 7:37 am

    I am not in corporate America but I observe this “all for me and none for you” attitude and it’s not a race thing. It’s amazing about the timing because I just published a new post on my blog titled “blessed to be a blessing” @
    I am a true believer of being blessed to be a blessing. What good is it to be blessed and sit on it all by yourself? I tried it and it is empty and lonely at the top. Then I tried to share it and help others along the way and it is true what the Bible says:” It is more blessed to give than to receive . ” Keep spreading your magnificent love around and don’t worry about the haters because it means that you are making an impact. You are a threat to those who do not want to move to higher level. When you experience that behavior, just smile to yourself and know that you are a shaker and mover and keep shining like the star you are.

  10. nicole

    May 25, 2011 at 8:42 am

    I’ve experienced support and the opposite. I admit I have been the unsupportive one in the past. I have also been suspious of the support provided at times. I had to let go of the arrogant attitude I had before I could support and receive it. I find that some women feel you have gone over to the other side when you seek success. I find that part most saddening. I had women call me to task for how I ate saying it was too white cause I knew how to properly handle a knife and fork. I now help those who want it and avoid the haters.

  11. sekai

    May 26, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    This article is really interesting – i wrote my masters dissertation on this topic last year, i was considering the experiences of black women in white spaces feeling unable to support eachother. I’m Black British so it’s cool to hear your guys take on it… some very interesting paralells. It’s great to see this being discussed!

  12. Samantha Smith

    February 15, 2012 at 4:51 am

    Samantha Smith:

    Black Women have being on the back burner for so many years / living out their lives in oppression due to unfulfilling life styles and when they get a taste of the good life, she is now “the BLACK WOMAN” We as Black Women should take the time to thank and / or celebrate “BLACK WOMEN of TIME” the likes of Hattie McDaniel, Harriet Tubman, Sojouner Truth, Mary Bethune, Rosa Parks, Cisely Tyson, Angela Davis, Moms Mabely, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Patty Labelle, Nicki Giovanni, Maxine Waters, and so many more to mention “FOCUS BLACK WOMEN”

  13. Michele Wells

    March 22, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    I have had this experience multiple times. Not only in work environments but in my personal relationships with black women. I sense that many of them feel threatened by my presence. As if there is an inherent rivalry between us. It saddens and frustrates me but it does not discourage me. In fact, I use it as motivation to excel.

  14. Robin

    February 20, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Rene I just came into a situation just like you describe. This black woman is younger than me but she looks way older than me. I tried to humble myself. She all way telling me in any conversion of her education and her Grade in the Gov. I was so upset kept hearing how much higher or to say how much power she had. I start to believe I was nothing. I am normal a strong person but like I said I wanted to humble myself. Girl I prayed and I prayed and came to the conclusion
    1. She has no control over me
    2. I will be the best at whatever I do
    3. I will characterize people by their actons and I will never be fooled by their words.
    Since she want to be so education that mean most of her words would most likely be wrong. this really happen. but she could’t HUMBLE HER SELF.

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