Black Women’s Dilemma: Be Real or Be Ignored

you know each
other, you don’t know
whom you can trust and
they don’t know whether
they can trust you.

Dr. Sandra MilesDr. Sandra Miles

Among administrative professionals in American higher education, African American women perceive the least social support on campus and are least likely to advance beyond mid-level positions.

Dr. Sandra Miles, director of student affairs and university ombudsman at Indiana University–Purdue University Columbus, discussed causes and strategies at the NASPA annual convention in Orlando FL in March. Also appearing was her dissertation advisor, Dr. Robert A. Schwartz, chair and professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Florida State University, who did not present.

“We combat stereotypes that have existed long before we came into the room,” Miles said. The black woman’s dilemma is like that of the mythical Greek king Sisyphus, condemned eternally to push a rock uphill that rolls back down before he reaches the top. If you mention systemic racism and sexism, you come across as angry; if you don’t, you go on being ignored because of your race and gender. Either way the rock rolls back down.

Unfortunately not much has changed since a 1989 study found that black women administrators were concentrated in entry and midlevel positions and perceived as less qualified. A later study found those in midlevel positions have minimal contact with senior administrators and interact mostly with entry-level professionals.

Miles’ dissertation research confirmed these conclusions. She surveyed 671 student affairs professionals in the South and Midwest, mostly at predominantly white public universities. More than half were women and about a third were black. Compared to other groups, a larger percent of the black women surveyed were in mid-level positions (60%) and a smaller percent at senior levels (15%).

It’s not because they’re less qualified. Of respondents with a doctoral degree and at least 10 years of experience, half the black women were still at mid-level administration while 75% of black men (and nearly 60% of white women and men) had advanced to senior administration. What keeps African American women from moving up?


Black women respondents overwhelmingly reported feeling different and unappreciated. They’re frustrated and tired of defending themselves against being labeled as angry, loud, aggressive, rude and obnoxious. One wrote that some think “we are condescending, mean, unprofessional and harsh. Sometimes I feel that a majority of black women feel they can’t be their real selves at work because they will be judged.”

To check whether these labels are real or imagined, Miles asked all groups for stereotypes of black women. Angry was the word that occurred most often across groups; 47% of all responses mentioned anger, aggression, or being difficult or emotional or having a bad attitude.

Images of incompetence (uneducated, lazy, affirmative action hires) showed up in 14% of responses; loud or opinionated, 12%; bossy, pushy, unfriendly or a bitch, 11%. Compliments (strong, hard-working) were only 9.5%.

Sample comments:

• They are limited in their work by lack of education; they may have family obligations; they may not be professional and use good work ethics.

• Some of the stereotypes about black women are that they represent single mothers disproportionately and are, at times, aggressive and not as well prepared for given roles in the organization.

• I think they go to extremes to demand respect, for example insist on being called doctor or professor.

• I think it is especially hard for black women who have not adapted or who are not stylistically operating like the white women around them to be perceived as fair to all students, emotionally balanced and equally competent.

White women included statements about black women being less competent, unfriendly, unfair to some students and overdressed or overly concerned about fashion. Black men more often mentioned black women being mean, bossy and ambitious at others’ expense.

White men were most likely to cushion their comments with qualifiers (“I don’t believe this but…” or “I have heard people say…”) or follow their statement with a compliment. One wrote, “I believe others perceive them as lazy and loud, which is unfortunate because many work harder than any other group at the University.”

While women in general are stereotyped as over-emotional, white or Asian American women contend with the image of being soft, delicate, weak and fragile. The emotions most attributed to black women are anger and aggression, traits perceived as masculine.

One reported:

On one occasion I was told by the person who would have been my supervisor that I was too competent and therefore threatened her. On another occasion I was told by other employees that if I were a pretty woman who smiled a lot I would have gotten the job. In that instance each direct report to the supervisor was a young, pretty woman and the woman he chose looked almost exactly like someone else who reported to him.

Not in the club

“I don’t go to work to make friends” is the title Miles chose for her NASPA session. Tired of having to defend their personalities and competence, black women respondents focused on excellence on the job. But they found that good work was not enough to advance their career. Asked if she had ever been overlooked for a promotion, one responded:

Absolutely! I feel that I am not part of the ‘club.’ I’m not white and I’m not male. They are given praise and recognition. They are asked to sit on committees and I KNOW that I work harder and am more productive and talented than they are.”

White women, white men and black men reported getting similar amounts of social support, while black women perceived significantly less.

They mentioned their lack of relationships on campus repeatedly as reasons for being passed over for promotion:

  • Personal relationships. Supervisors clearly promote friends.
  • I was not good enough friends with the deciding person.
  • Lack of personal relationship with the vice president for student affairs.
  • It was purely politics.

Stereotypes contribute to keeping black women out of the club, while their lack of connections helps perpetuate the stereotypes. Getting personal breaks down stereotypes.

Social support

Workplace stereotypes affect all women but black women handle them differently, Miles said. They look outside the workplace for social support, finding it in family, church and community. This echoes the conclusion of Clayborne and Hamrick (2007) that black women were more likely to identify their primary sources of support in religious faith, other black women and off-campus resources rather than supervisors or colleagues.

These sources of support can be tremendously important in personal terms. Strong families, churches and communities provide settings of love and acceptance free from the pressure to negotiate the complex dance of “acting white” or be treated as outsiders. If you were raised to dress well, you can do so without being dismissed as a fashionista.

“But they don’t help us to get promoted in the workplace,” Miles said. While white women—often with less support off campus—reach out to colleagues in search of relationship, black women collectively feel isolated and marginalized on campus. This in turn leads them to disengage from the campus community.

Prioritizing work over work-related relationships, black women strongly committed to their jobs are viewed instead as antisocial. A survey respondent wrote that others believed black women were “not interested in connecting with colleagues.”

Connections on campus may never fill the place of deep relationships closer to home. And given stereotypes of incompetence, excellent work is always important. But to break out of mid-level into upper administration, Miles advised black women to make interpersonal connections on campus a priority.

“We know we are thoughtful and wise, but we’re just not showing this in the workplace,” she said. “The point is that all experiences are shared by black and white males and females. The difference is how we handle it.”


Yes, racism and sexism are unjust. Yes, white privilege and male privilege are problems. That doesn’t require us to let that rock keep rolling down the hill again and again like Sisyphus until equity is achieved. To advance professionally is not abandoning the larger cause but gaining more power to do something about it.

“So what are we going to do, ladies?” Miles asked. “I speak as someone who did it wrong for many years. Those who could promote me had no clue as to who I am.”

To have them think of you at promotion time, do the things that others on campus are already doing. Connect with others and not just your friends.

She suggested:

Be more personal and personable. Be genuine in a positive way you’re comfortable with. Don’t complain about being tired or busy or underpaid; save that for your real friends. You want to be a person that people want to be around. You can do this without changing your work habits or core personality traits.

Get to know your colleagues. “How was your weekend?” “Great, how was yours?” Until you know each other, you don’t know whom you can trust and they don’t know whether they can trust you. Miles attended regular meetings where the conversation before it revolved around getting drunk. She finally joined the banter, saying, “Look, I draw the line on moonshine.” After that remark, others felt that they could trust her.

Attend gatherings at co-workers’ homes when invited. A white woman repeatedly invited Miles to come have wine on her porch. When she finally did, the woman was delighted and started inviting others to come meet her.

Have gatherings at your home and invite co-workers. Be willing to take the initiative. If you wait to be asked, you may wait a long time.

 • Invite key players to lunch to talk business. Work in casual personal conversation about home, family or other interests. Choose a tone and topics that paint you as personable rather than overwhelmed.

 • Look for sponsors. These are different from mentors, who encourage you. Sponsors advocate for you whether you are there or not. A sponsor talks you up to others and defends you when others bad-mouth you. “Have at least one white male in your corner,” she said. When she gets pushback from faculty, she goes to lunch with her male faculty friends. “If they’re married, we go in threes.”

Stop assuming hard work will get you noticed. If you want to get promoted, you need to be the one getting noticed, for the right reasons.

“My ideas will not guarantee that you become vice president for student affairs,” Miles said in closing. “But if you do these things, it will open many doors for you.

Role of Others in Supporting Black Women

What can white women do?

“Be patient with us. We’ve been burned a lot, in ways we’ll never forget. Black women are givers who value loving relationships. If we don’t trust you, we are not about to open up to you.”

What can white men do?

“Understand that black women have their issues. You can’t fix us. We’re not looking for a savior to make us over. Appreciate us and let us be ourselves. If someone seems to overreact, ask her, ‘What did you hear from this conversation that led you to respond this way?’ Disagreement should not lead to ignoring her.”

– Dr. Sandra Miles, NASPA, 2013

Contact her at:

Cook, Sarah Gibbard (2013, April). Black Women's Dilemma: Be Real or Be Ignored. Women in Higher Education, 22(4), 14-15.

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