Helping Women to Take Charge

Why are there so few women of color serving as corporate supervisors and managers? Farai Chideya poses that question to Ella Bell, associate professor of organizational management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The number of black and brown people in the U.S. workforce keeps growing, but only 15 percent of supervisors are women of color. When you hit the boardroom and executive suites, things get even worse.

Ella Bell has been tracking workforce diversity. She is an associate professor of organizational management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University. Welcome.

Professor ELLA BELL (Associate Professor of Organizational Management, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth University): Well, welcome. I'm delighted to be here.

CHIDEYA: I'm delighted…

Prof. BELL: Happy New Year.

CHIDEYA: Yes. Happy New Year. So who are we talking about when we say multi-cultural women managers?

Prof. BELL: Well, you think about the four racial ethnic groups we consider pretty traditionally in this country: African-American, Hispanic-Latino, Asian, Pacific Asian and Native American. And then when we add multi cultural, what we've done is we've broaden that out to also include women from the immigrant countries - Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Middle Eastern women because Middle Eastern women were definitely being left out. And because white women have a culture too, we also include white women in our working definition at ascent, leading multicultural women to the top.

CHIDEYA: When you talk about such a broader ray of people, people born in the U.S., people born overseas, white women, black women, et cetera, are you really putting apples, oranges, papayas, mangoes all in…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: …same basket?

Prof. BELL: We're making a fruit salad here.

CHIDEYA: Exactly.

Prof. BELL: Well, when you look at the workforce, the demographics of the American workforce, all of those women happen to be in the workforce today. So the fruit cocktail, as you so nicely put it, is already in existence. It's how do you get the women from these various backgrounds to recognize that they have something in common, and that if they were together and form alliances with each other and coalitions with each other, then we might really be able to see a difference in the social fabric and the demographic fabric in the American corporation.

CHIDEYA: Why? Why odes it matter not just to people of color, not just to women but to America?

Prof. BELL: Well, this is what - in matters greatly. This is magic number, 83 percent. Many years ago, the Hudson Institute came out with this Workforce 2000. And they talked about that the entering workforce would be 13 percent white male. We've, over the years, now transitioned that and we talked about 83 percent. And we look at the 83 percent. What we're talking about our women and people of color really entering into the American workforce.

And when you think about that 83 percent women - when I say women, they're really talking about white women and then the women of color come under the minority group, if you will. But what we know about that entire number is that when we start talking about that people of color, that most of those people of color are women because the men, particularly African-American men and Hispanic men, are not in the pipeline to enter the workforce. So why is this important?

We're talking about the backbone of American companies, which happened to be very global. Let's be very clear about that. But we're talking about the workforce and the advancement of our industry based, as we know it, being more female. And how do we prepare those women, not just white women but all women? And that's pretty critical. We're actually talking about the backbone of the American workforce within the next 10 years if not sooner.

CHIDEYA: Are you talking about people who might be entrepreneurs and starting up their own businesses or people who might be at Fortune 500 companies?

Prof. BELL: We're talking about the people in the Fortune 500 and smaller midsized American corporations as well. What's happening - while we do see a greater number of women entrepreneurs, some of that is happening or occurring because of the fact that women are very frustrated and they're taking upon their own selves to develop their own companies because they're not being able to advance the way they think they should within the corporate side.

So they're forming their own businesses and companies. And we also see that women who have had children, who would like to reenter American corporations, the companies that they left, they don't see a way to reenter those companies, so they wind up starting their own businesses. That's one of the reasons why that number is increasing.

CHIDEYA: When you think about someone who might be - two or three years into working at a corporation and starts seeing a lot of her colleagues leaving because they can't put up with this, that or the other, how would you advise someone who is just beginning to feel the full impact of race and gender to negotiate a way to stay in business if not in that specific corporation?

Prof. BELL: Well, you know, Farai, you have to be very clear about what you ant. I always tell women, first of all, that the grass is no greener on the other side. Even if you want to start your own business, you really need to have some corporate experience underneath your belt to establish your network and to really learn about business from the inside, if you will.

But one of the things I like to tell women is to be very clear about what you want, to be able to establish a work plan for yourself so that you know exactly where you want to be within the next year or two; be sure that you've discussed your goals with your boss, with your manager, make sure that they're on board with you, that you have allies that will help kind of put the word out about who you are and the work you're doing. Perform, perform, perform. I cannot say that enough.

Good performance - people notice. Don't be afraid to blow your own whistle and to, you know, build an effective team abound you that will support you. The other thing is get the word out. Don't keep yourself in isolation; volunteer for different taskforce, different opportunities so that you can create a presence for yourself. Don't look at other women leaving and saying, okay, this is where my faith is going too. As my mother used to say, you know, everybody could be jumping off the roof. It doesn't mean you do it too.

CHIDEYA: Professor, thanks so much.

Prof. BELL: You're so very welcome.

CHIDEYA: Ella Bell is associate professor of organizational management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University. She also founded Ascent, leading multicultural women to the top. She joined us from Charles Holloman Productions in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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