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Is single parenthood the reason so many black women work in clerical positions?

A 2001 Women Enews story claimed that

African American Women Predominate in Support Jobs

Cindia Cameron, national organizing director for 9 to 5, had a few theories as to why that was the case then:

“I think very likely it’s a combination of both racial and gender discrimination that makes it harder for African American women to move out of traditional jobs that organizations and companies sort of “see” them in,” she says. “It’s not so much that there is something wrong with so many women, African American and otherwise, in clerical positions, but are these positions ones with a career ladder?”

Cameron says that if one were to think about a comparable, traditionally male job, a mechanic, for instance, one would find that the job tends to have career advancement opportunities. Women in clerical positions, no matter their color, will probably remain in their same positions for the duration of their employment.

When Cameron started with 9 to 5 in the early 1980s, the organization’s African American female clerical workers were first generation.

“Being employed in these positions was a huge step when you compare the jobs that had been open to their mothers,” she says. “In the 1940s and 1950s and into the early 1960s, the single largest dominant category for African American women was housekeeping, both in corporations and as domestic service.”

As a result of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, more jobs in the public sector were open to African Americans. Black women found themselves in clerical positions because this was the bulk of what was available in the local government. These positions, while not viewed as particularly prestigious today, afforded black women greater career and financial opportunities at the time.

Explains Cameron, “One hindrance for many African American women is the unfortunate fact that so many, in larger numbers, tend to be single parents,” she says. “This is often a hindrance to their professional growth. It’s next to impossible for a female single parent to have a professional job because the positions demand such significant amounts of time. Most of the women who have achieved CEO status don’t have children,” she adds.

Keita Wells, an African American executive assistant for a chief operating officer of a mid-sized nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., is one of those whose level of education rivals that of her managerial counterparts. Wells earned a bachelor of science degree in business administration and marketing from LaSalle University in Philadelphia.

Clearly not suffering from a lack of credentials, she said her reason for taking the administrative job was to learn what was involved in running a business so that when she decides to start her own she will have a plethora of first-hand knowledge.

…Within the clerical field, black women and white women often have different jobs. More women of color are employed in back office jobs, doing a lot of data entry. Even in 2001, there is a lot of separation when it comes to the positions in this field.

Wells says she witnesses yet another cause for the prevalence of the trend.

“I think it’s hard for many black women to believe that they can be more than a clerk or administrative assistant. A lot of them don’t believe they fit into the managerial and executive mold. Until more black women recognize their self-worth, I don’t think much is going to change.”

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Do these theories still hold water today, 10 years later? Your thoughts?

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4 comments

  • No, and those theories did not hold water then. The truth of the matter is far more complex. The long and short of it is this: White Corporate America has never been comfortable having people of color working in it. Part of their continued socio-economic success and dominance depends on perpetuation of the myth of their intellectual and social superiority to people of color.

    This society is built upon that myth, their media promoting them as the creators of all major accomplishments of this society, their depiction of news, with people of color as the perpetrators of all real, violent crime in this country, the relegation of people of color into entertainment and sports related work, defining us as a people of physical ability not capable of intellectual pursuits or accomplishments.

    Allowing Black women to work serves both their pretense of allowing people of color into the workforce through their quota system, a black woman serves both the woman and black quotas, allowing them to NOT hire black men. Black men are the smallest minority of people of color working in corporate offices today. By hiring black women as servants to the powers that be, it reinforces their subservient roles and keeps them from positions of power by psychologically repressing their ambitions through their service.

    Many support positions have the unspoken rule that says “if you want to work FOR a company, never be a support person, if you are, you will never be allowed to rise into a role of management,” due to their claim of a lack of expertise. Nor do they groom these women for roles outside of the role of support – there is no path from receptionist, executive assistant or secretary – to minor functionary along the corporate path toward greater control, success or accessibility toward the corporate boardroom.

    The worst part of this is most of the women providing support for the “so-called executive elite” make it possible for those “elites” to exercise their abilities only because those women manage and control their schedules and work issues so excellently. Without them, most of those executives would be revealed for the frauds they actually are, many of whom come out of elite schools, with no real work experience, but are immediately placed into positions of management of which they have no training, nor ability and are held in place by their experienced administrative staff who are forced to carry them until they are properly groomed by their white mentors.

    I believe this is ultimately the greatest disservice people of color suffer under the current corporate environment. It is a hostile workplace designed to undervalue, under-prepare, and disproportionately exploit without rewarding the work of people of color who generally serve tireless, without any true regard for the value they bring to the companies that claim they are rewarding their workforces equally.

  • I hear you loud and clear. I recognize racism in the workplace exists and have seen and experienced what you write about in your comment, however, most of it seems very passive. At what point, is it the responsibility of these women to get an education and be eligible to apply for jobs that require a degree beyond an associates? It sounds like a lot of blame on “the man” and not much onus on the individual to demand more from an employer.

  • Also, I had a career coach that once told me that I do better when I work for an employer that has faith in my abilities. I know for certain when you work for someone who does not value your contributions, abilities and thoughts as much as the next worker of a different race and gender, it can hamper your confidence and work product. Certainly, if anything, it perpetuates and inferiority complex, so by all means I do not excuse, or give a pass to those employers in those circumstances. However, I think the last line in the post is critical. Women need to feel empowered to rise above the circumstances they find themselves in. At the point that a woman feels that she is being ill-treated, if she believes she is worth more than that, she will do everything in her power to change jobs, get more education and training and move on to a more supportive work environment.

    I also do not believe the single-parenthood thing is a trap. I think of single moms like former Essence editor-in-chief, Susan Taylor, who rose in the ranks from clerical to beauty editor to head honcho. As she rose, she gained enough income, arguably to afford a caregiver and I assume she had other family members who could help her care for her child on the occasions she had to travel.

  • And of course, every corporation is willing to say: “Wow, you have a degree now” and so the barely noticeable racist tendencies of our great conglomerate that pays disproportionately our white employees multiples of times difference in salaries will suddenly bow before your awesome Bachelor’s, Master’s or Ph.D. and suddenly realize the error of their ways and pay and treat you as an equal.

    Corporations that have exhibited racist tendencies in their hiring and overall practices are not likely to change that behavior, no matter how many people of color who show up with degrees. We have already proven evidence that in Corporate America when two employees show up, one a white man with a criminal record and a Black Man without one, if their resumes are equal in every other way, the white man with a criminal record will still get a job first.

    Those corporations need to be identified and held to a standard that ensures that everyone working there is able to benefit from equal opportunities. That will likely require monitoring or moderation by the government since most corporations lack the good sense to bring diversity to their workplace due to the ideals of “homo-social reproduction” which is the principle of the workplace hiring people like the people already working in that environment to supposedly ensure greater cooperation, greater solidarity and to reduce stress in the workplace since everyone will come from a similar economic, social and education background.

    As long as such mindsets exist, very little will change no matter what educational backgrounds exist amongst people seeking work in those environments.

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