The Visible Barrier

How African American women can thrive and succeed in today’s workplace

Katherine Giscombe, PhD

When my research team and I at Catalyst investigated African American women in corporate environments in the mid-2000s, we noted the phenomenon of their “outsider-within” status. By remaining conscious that they were outsiders in corporate environments due to their under-representation at high levels, these African American women recognized the subtle, unacknowledged privileges that accrue to those in power. Some women in our sample embraced their outsider status to actively challenge norms about how things were done and to ensure greater fairness in decision making.

Over the years since the mid-2000s, corporate diversity and inclusion efforts have increased, with more companies creating programs to accelerate the careers of black women and other underrepresented groups. In spite of these efforts, African American women remain disadvantaged in the US workforce and experience a significant wage gap versus white men.

Recent groundbreaking research has expanded on the nuances of black women’s outsider-within status and has highlighted how successful executive African American women can thrive in corporate environments. Alexis Nicole Smith of Oklahoma State University and her coauthors, whose research was published in the Academy of Management Journal, found that the executive black women surveyed had access to professional work environments through education and training but remained outsiders among their white peers. They each experienced, at times, a type of visibility given their prominence among very few black women in senior positions. At other times, they experienced invisibility, in that their accomplishments were overlooked or disregarded because the women did not match the image of typical senior leaders (white and male). Smith and her colleagues identified strategies that executive black women employed to gain the visibility needed to succeed.

A predominant strategy is “leaning into risk.” Executive black women, confident in their skills but frequently overlooked as potential leaders, took on risky assignments, often weighing the professional benefits as well as potential costs if they were unsuccessful. One nuance of this strategy was that the women needed to actively promote their successes.

A second strategy, “use of bold autonomy,” entailed the women making forthright expressions about their principles, verbalizing bold statements, and standing up for what they felt was right in particular situations. This strategy included using autonomy to craft their careers and execute their plans, by, for example, not following conventional paths. This tactic resulted in the women gaining respect and recognition and, at times, mentors.

The third commonly employed strategy was “strategic use of invisibility”—at times, the women avoided fully authentic displays. This tactic was particularly important when women perceived that stigmas associated with their race and gender posed too large a threat to overcome by displaying authenticity. It allowed black women to “go under the radar screen,” rather than disappearing.

This research offers a nuanced portrait of black women’s strategies for success in organizations. It can, one hopes, be used as a guide for others to overcome the exclusionary aspects of their work environments and achieve success and personal satisfaction. DW
Katherine Giscombe, PhD, led groundbreaking work on women of color in the workplace for Catalyst, a global nonprofit that builds workplaces that work for women, and she is currently founder of Giscombe & Associates, a research and consulting firm.

Join the Diversity Woman Community

Join a network of career-oriented women and use the member directory to see all the members in your community and find world class mentors. Access exclusive leadership development packages to help you achieve your career goals. Work With Coaches. Take Career Development Courses, and much more.