When Black Women Are In Charge

Overcoming Reluctant Followership

Black women c-suite tech executives may face reluctance from direct reports

Nobody ever really is questioning whether I should be an executive. They’re always questioning whether I should be in charge of White and Brown men.

Valerie [not her real name] was one of the amazing women I interviewed for a study that examined the career journeys of a diverse group of women who advanced from technical positions to senior information technology executive (SITE) roles. In many ways, the experiences of women in my study reflect those of women in leadership across a variety of industries. They demonstrate that race and gender biases continue even after women “take a seat at the table.”

What interests me most about Valerie’s sentiments, and those of the other study participants, is the picture that emerges of reluctant followership — a term I created to describe a social phenomenon typically ignored in conversations about increasing diversity in the senior executive ranks of tech companies.

Upending Diversity Paradigms

Reluctant followership is hesitance to take direction from or yield authority to a person in a leadership role and can be displayed by employees and organization leaders alike. In the case of women in general and women of color (WOC) in particular, words, attitudes, and behaviors are directed toward them that reveal an underlying reticence to cooperate with or support them.

In the election of Kamala Harris as the Vice President of the United States, we see a battle unfolding between enthusiastic support and reluctant followership. Segments of the American populace are ready to follow a Black and Indian woman while others are reluctant. Her effectiveness as Vice President will depend, in part, on the willingness of the Congress and the American people to follow her lead and work collaboratively with the Biden-Harris administration. Such is the case with all leadership and followership in every industry and endeavor. Although I center this article on the experiences of Black women in the tech industry, the focus neither diminishes the experiences of other women nor minimizes their struggles with reluctant followership. Choosing to highlight the experiences of Black women in IT clarifies their unique encounters with reluctant followership.

Most women in the tech industry contend with some form of reluctant followership, but Black women are especially likely to elicit this reaction as they perform SITE roles. Reluctant followership creates a narrow band of behaviors that they must choose from in order to retain and succeed in their C-suite positions. In other words, reluctant followership undermines authentic leadership by limiting leaders to behaviors that make their organizations comfortable.

Reluctant followership is hesitance to take direction from or yield authority to a person in a leadership role and can be displayed by employees and organization leaders alike.

Historically, corporate diversity initiatives have focused on improving C-suite candidates’ perceived credentials and professionalism, but the failure of these efforts suggests the need for a new approach. Instead of focusing on improving the leadership skills of well-qualified candidates, diversity initiatives would be more effective if they focused on improving followership at all organizational levels. The true measure of corporate diversity is when individuals from diverse backgrounds are empowered to lead authentically by groups that follow willingly.

Obstacles To Inclusion

Leadership Experiences Are Not Universal

Research continues to show that Black women have a more intensely difficult experience in the workplace than most professionals. Across industries, Black women account for only 1% of C-suite leaders, despite being highly educated and ambitious. They are hired and promoted more slowly, are often the only Black woman or person of their race/ethnicity in meetings or the workplace, and experience a greater variety of microaggressions than women of other races and ethnicities. They are more likely than other women to engage in code-switching, be “on guard,” have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise, and be asked for additional evidence of their competence. Despite being qualified to gain and hold leadership positions, these women can experience an increase in microaggressions along with open challenges to their credibility and legitimacy as they progress in their careers. Obtaining leadership roles does not change this experience.

“On guard“— consciously preparing to deal with potential discrimination by bracing for insults, avoiding social situations and places, or taking care with appearance to avoid bias (Catalyst.org)

Code-Switching

In my own experience navigating predominately White and male IT workplaces, I was acutely aware of my race and gender. As I looked for ways to advance my IT career, I was mindful to use my “White voice” when I talked with my colleagues, to always smile, and to remain vigilant of my arm and body movements so that my colleagues never perceived me as angry (the angry Black woman stereotype). I also made sure that my hair aligned with the company’s perceptions of professionalism. I hoped that these efforts, collectively called code-switching, would make hiring managers and colleagues more comfortable with me, and thus increase my chances of being hired, accepted, and promoted. Nevertheless, I still experienced and witnessed overt, subtle, and unconscious race and gender bias. In my consulting and corporate work, I have become accustomed to having one or more people express surprise at my expertise and discount my contributions in design meetings. On the occasions when I worked alongside other women in technical roles, we were frequently disillusioned by lack of support, reduced opportunities, and gender dynamics that disadvantaged us and benefited our male coworkers. Code-switching comes at a cost. It hampers authenticity and reduces feelings of belonging.

In line with my experience, the Black women in my study were keenly aware of de facto corporate culture. As such, they felt a need to remain vigilant and mindful of their colleagues’ perceptions of them and altered their behavior when they felt the situation required it. To progress, Black women in SITE roles have learned they need to limit themselves to a narrow band of behavior — in essence, a tightrope. They interact in specific ways to remain “acceptable” to their predominately White and male colleagues and direct reports. It is a necessary choice to limit themselves to these behaviors because history and research continue to show that other behaviors are not available to them if they want to advance in the SITE environment. As they walk this tightrope, microaggressions, stereotypes, and attacks on their credibility buffet them from inside and outside the organization, making it particularly challenging to retain balance in the work environment.

To progress, Black women in SITE roles have learned they need to limit themselves to a narrow band of behavior — in essence, a tightrope.

Navigating The Angry Black Woman Stereotype — Being “On Guard”

While industry and academic research continue to document various structural and social/psychological barriers that women encounter throughout the computing pipeline, I chose to investigate the experiences of a diverse group of women who achieved top IT leadership roles. The adverse experiences of the Black women were notable for their number, intensity, and complexity. For instance, Kathy shared an experience where her supervisor felt that perceptions of her as an angry Black woman played to his advantage. Yet, he failed to see how his comments undermined perceptions of her as an effective leader.

And he said something about an angry Black woman one day. “I love having you on my team because if we have a problem, I can ask you to handle it because they’ll be afraid of an angry black woman.”…He had no idea how I took it and how I could have taken it. He thought he was making a joke that I was in on, right? I’m in on the joke. “You get it Kathy. This is so great. This is a win-win for both of us because now you can protect me because they won’t ever come at you because they don’t want you to get angry.” And what I heard was they think…when [Black women] run into issues they’re going to become angry and loud. And I guard myself against a lot of stereotypes. [Kathy: African American/Black, Deputy CIO]

Natalie also talked about a recent battle against the angry Black woman stereotype.

I can’t react the way some of my Caucasian male counterparts react because I’d get quite a different level of acceptance or lack thereof from the people in the room. I don’t raise my voice. And I’ve made that point real clear to some of those Caucasian male counterparts. I’ve said, “Please don’t be mistaken that just because I’m not going to bang my fist on the table or raise my voice to a certain elevation, please don’t be mistaken in thinking that I can’t hold my own. Because I can assure that I can.” I’ve had to say things like that in meetings, and remain professional and articulate … so that I could get my point made. I’ve had to hold my tongue. I’ve had to walk away from a conversation because anything other than that, even if it’s…how can I say this…even if it’s a well-deserved response, it will be very differently perceived coming from me as opposed to coming from maybe my White male counterpart. [Natalie: African American/Black, CIO]

Upon further prompting, Natalie additionally shared that her colleagues viewed crying as acceptable behavior from her coworkers who were White women, but they would not tolerate the same behavior from her.

Unstable Credibility a.k.a. “Ground Hog Day”

In another part of my study, I asked each participant about the kind of influence they perceived they had within their organization and among their colleagues and direct reports. The question is important to understanding women’s leadership because leadership literature associates effective leadership with the ability to establish credibility, be perceived by others as a leader, and gain influence.

Valerie maintained that her level of influence was predicated on people viewing her as a credible and legitimate leader. But when she accepted a new role or went into a new environment, she found that whatever credibility and influence she had previously gained was not transferable. Thus, she had to continually regain influence and reestablish credibility through a process she called “Ground Hog Day.”

It’s the same experience over and over. It’s like “Ground Hog Day” for the people who haven’t met you before because there’s all the concern with whether you are capable or qualified, you know? And there’s all the speculation around how you got to be where you are. And that never stops. It doesn’t matter if I’m a programmer or if I’m a CIO, okay. That never prevents anybody from questioning anything. It doesn’t matter if I started this company and built it from nothing or if I came in as an employee. It’s the same. They question how it is, why it is, am I capable, can I do that, who helped me… It’s like a pattern.

For these women, climbing the corporate ladder in IT required navigating an advancement path littered with obstacles, shaped by reluctant followership, and, even after achieving C-suite roles, walking a behavioral tightrope.

Black woman c-suite tech executive

Removing Obstacles to Inclusion — Shifting Reluctance to Cooperation

Simply Changing the Numbers Does Not Work

Increasing the number of people from underrepresented groups, i.e., improving compositional diversity, is the current focus of diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts in the senior executive ranks of IT. The industry assumption is that increased demographic diversity will automatically lead to inclusion. However, disproportionately low numbers of WOC in SITE roles indicate that inclusion requires organization leaders to move beyond compositional diversity. They must acknowledge how reluctant followership — the antithesis of inclusion — is reflected in the organization’s culture and address its impact on D&I efforts.

As organizational psychologist and D&I consultant Dr. Bernardo Ferdman writes, “inclusion involves both being fully ourselves and allowing others to be fully themselves in the context of engaging in common pursuits. It means collaborating in a way in which all parties can be fully engaged and subsumed, and yet, paradoxically, at the same time believe that they have not compromised, hidden, or given up any part of themselves” (2010; Teaching inclusion by example and experience: Creating an inclusive learning environment. Leading across differences: Cases and perspectives — Facilitator’s guide). As an intentional practice, organization leaders must act on the evidence that inclusion requires more than compositional diversity.

Role Models, Mentors, and Disproportionate Negativity

In addition to compositional diversity, D&I efforts in tech consistently emphasize the importance of having mentors and role models of the same gender and race/ethnicity to provide support and advice.

This is problematic for Black women for two reasons. First, Black women are nearly nonexistent in the C-suite. Second, when Black women attain executive roles, the expectations placed on them above and beyond the typical requirements of the position may discourage Black women in lower-level roles from aspiring to leadership positions.

Some research has shown that compared to Black men and White women, Black women leaders are perceived more negatively when organizational goals are not met or organizational performance outcomes are negative. The researchers noted that Black women executives might have to work harder to minimize mistakes because the penalties are greater for them than for other underrepresented groups.

Unlike White men, when Black women attain leadership roles, their leadership ability and competence is not assumed (“Ground Hog Day”). Studies of women in executive and managerial positions also show that compared to White women, Black women experience greater challenges to their authority and are often held to a higher standard. Mistakes can prove damaging to their status and increase questions about their leadership competence.

When taken in total, the number and intensity of challenges reinforce exclusion, creating an unattractive career path for some Black women in lower-level roles. To be clear, Black women in SITE roles are role models. Still, their advancement journeys clearly demonstrate the barriers to inclusion and equity that plague not only tech organizations but a variety of U.S. industries.

“Fail Fast” Is Not Allowed

It is worth noting that failure is a necessary part of personal and organizational learning — an ethos hailed in the tech industry. Ironically, the evidence shows that failure is not tolerated from Black women leaders in IT. Therefore, during performance reviews, managers need to be aware of the intersection of biases against Black women leaders (i.e., race, gender, and prototypical leadership). They also need to investigate and consider, first, the effect of reluctant followership on the productivity of the teams led by Black women in SITE roles and, second, the perceptions of them as role models to Black women in lower-level roles.

Beyond Identifying Barriers

The level of acceptance of Black women in SITE roles is, in part, an inverse function of race and gender biases inherent in American society. As proof, scholars maintain that attention to race brings into question the depth to which conventional explanations, while important, can account for the dearth of Black women in SITE roles (1% in C-suite roles). Beyond identifying barriers (e.g., lack of role models, exclusion from informal networks, unconscious bias) and acknowledging the strategies that Black women in SITE roles undertake to advance and succeed, organization leaders need to give conscious consideration to the impact of reluctant followership and how it serves to reinforce institutional and structural racism.

Organization leaders need to give conscious consideration to the impact of reluctant followership and how it serves to reinforce institutional and structural racism.

White Allies Must Acknowledge Their Power

In the past few months, there has been a noticeable increase in articles, tips, and webinars focused on understanding the Black experience, White privilege, White fragility, and how to be a “good ally.” Without understanding and acknowledging the intersecting gender, race, and power dynamics that Black women encounter, allyship from well-intentioned White people does little to oppose reluctant followership.

Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer affirmed, “Nobody is free until everybody’s free.” Indeed, removing obstacles to inclusion for Black women also helps remove obstacles to inclusion for all women. Therefore, it is crucial that allies — especially White women in senior human resources and D&I roles in IT — not shy away from, disavow, or diminish the existence and impact of power and privilege in Black women’s hard-won path to leadership. Although White women have learned to “lean in” and navigate the “labyrinth” to attain top leadership roles, they may be unwilling or hesitant to acknowledge that their White privilege provides advantages not afforded to WOC. Specifically, White women may be hesitant to help dismantle the very system that provides their power and privilege. Nevertheless, those advantages are produced by the same systems that disadvantage WOC, particularly Black women.

Remaining silent unconsciously (or consciously) perpetuates the very structures (i.e., white supremacy, misogyny) that keep systemic racism and sexism in place. Acknowledgment and constructive use of power and privilege are essential to dismantling biased systems and creating equitable workplaces. There is no neutral ground in matters of power.

The Corporate Bottom Line

Empirical studies and anecdotal evidence point to the increased profits of companies that have diversity in the senior executive ranks. It follows, then, that constraining executives and making them unable to lead authentically runs contrary to the profit-increasing potential of a diverse workplace. Unfortunately, Black women must employ multiple strategies and expend more mental and emotional resources than other professionals to persist and advance in IT. Further, an organizational culture marked by reluctant followership may constrain their ability to practice an authentic leadership style shaped by diverse experiences and backgrounds.

Empirical studies and anecdotal evidence point to the increased profits of companies that have diversity in the senior executive ranks.

Instead of continuing failed attempts to increase diversity in SITE ranks through leadership development (“she needs to change, not us”) and compositional diversity (“increasing numbers automatically accomplishes inclusion”), organizations can get to the heart of the issue by addressing reluctant followership embedded within their existing culture. As companies become increasingly aware of systemic racism and gender inequity in their culture and policies, senior leaders and D&I practitioners must identify specific biases, practices, and policies that hinder authentic leadership and make organization-wide changes that shift reluctance to cooperation.

The costs of inclusion, thus far, have not been shared equally. Instead, marginalized communities, particularly Black women, have disproportionately borne the costs. It is time to eliminate inauthentic leadership expectations. It is time for organization leaders and direct reports to take responsibility for eliminating reluctant followership and cocreating genuinely inclusive and equitable workplaces.

Building Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Workplaces

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