I knew from the age of 13 that I wanted to be a lawyer. Oddly, the inspiration at first came from watching Marcia Clark on CNN after school strut up and down the courtroom during the OJ Simpson trial with a sense of authority that I craved even at that age. Closer to home, the other lawyers in my life who fuelled my passion for the profession were mostly activist lawyers and mostly male. Growing up, I did not have an example of a black female lawyer and that lack of representation made me even more determined to be not just a lawyer, but a great lawyer, not just for myself, but for another girl like me looking for an example.
What has consumed my time lately is studying the patterns that make it difficult for black women to reach the pinnacle of power in their chosen careers. I am looking at the experiences of hard-working black female lawyers I know whose professional journeys can best be described as swimming through mud. Due to the distance between them and their dreams of professional success, their energy is admittedly waning. But if they bow out will they be reinforcing the stereotype that black women are not good enough?
In March 2018 it was reported that there are only five black CEOs who head Top 40 companies listed on the JSE. Although the number of black executives has increased somewhat in the past 24 years, representation of black CEOs is not improving on the Top 40 companies in the JSE. Maria Ramos is the only white woman leading a Top 40 company in South Africa as CEO of Barclays Africa. It is worse for black women. They are not featured at all.
In my sector, the legal sector, the Law Society of South Africa reported that 80% of attorneys’ practices were still owned by white practitioners, and two-thirds of attorneys’ practices were still owned by men only. The latest statistics showed that even though 46% of the legal profession in South Africa is made up of women, retaining these women within the profession has been a challenge.
Entering the legal profession as a black woman is to do so with a negative stereotype hanging over your head — that law is too complex an undertaking for us and that it is the rightful domain of males, mostly white, who are the true MVPs of this game and that you would be lucky just to be a reserve.
No one expects you to go all the way — and therefore you do not believe you can. I desired to break this stereotype, I was determined to pursue partnership at all costs and prove that black women are just as capable. But now I have to wonder whether my intent on disproving the stereotype and the anxiety it caused contributed to my inability to achieve my goal.
The term, “stereotype threat”, is an American one that was first used in 1995 by Steele and Aronson, who showed in several experiments that black university students performed more poorly on standardised tests than white students when their race was emphasised. When race was not emphasised, however, black students performed better and equivalently with white students.
The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behaviour might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes.
When one views oneself in terms of a group membership, for example:
“I am a black woman and black women are not expected to be great lawyers.”
Performance can be undermined and suppressed because of concerns about possibly confirming negative stereotypes. In other words, they not only deal with the fear they will personally do poorly or be perceived as not as smart as their white counterparts, they also deal with the stress that their poor performance would reflect badly on all black women. This is an onerous burden to bear which manifests itself in physical and mental health issues.
The effect of the stereotype threat on women in the workplace was illustrated in an experiment in which female and male MBA students were paired and asked to negotiate the purchase of a building.
Half the negotiating pairs were given the information that women are often not effective negotiators because they are not assertive, rational, decisive, forceful, and unemotional. The other half were given neutral information.
Women in the stereotype threat group confirmed the stereotype by performing more poorly than the men, while women negotiating without stereotype threat performed as well as the men.
This failure comes at a psychological cost of being one of just a few black people in a predominantly white profession in which you fail to break stereotypes. One of my goals was to develop my writing skills to prove that black women can write. But writing opinions and articles became a source of emotional stress because I was labouring under the internalised belief that I cannot, because of my race and gender, be a good writer and if I indeed did not write well I would confirm that belief that black women cannot write.
It is also common for black women to feel to compelled to work longer hours in order to disprove the stereotype that black women have a poor work ethic. However working long hours can reinforce another stereotype that black women need more time to complete a task that would take someone else half the time.
The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but as so eloquently pointed out by author, Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, the danger is that they create a single story. There is not only one kind of black woman lawyer, just like there is not one kind of white male lawyer. There are some who are good and some who are mediocre, but the problem is that white male lawyers do not get judged by the negative stereotype — the assumption is that all are good, which is a better launching pad.
Another study revealed that black women professionals tread cautiously to avoid upsetting a firm’s majority group’s sensibilities. Put simply, we can be visibly black, but don’t want to be perceived as stereotypically black. This means straightening our hair and speaking without a trace of our accents so as to prove we are a different, more acceptable kind of Black.
It is hard to work in an environment with people with an admitted and unadmitted internalisation of the negative stereotypes about black women. You can see the skepticism on some well-meaning faces, the visible doubt when eventually entrusting you with an important task can make a tough task even tougher because the stakes are high — your failure will not be yours alone, but it will be attributed to all black women.
I underestimated the extent to which I had internalised the message that black women are not made for the rigours of the law profession. A number of black women enter the legal profession each year, but how many actually attain real power within law firms? How many reach their full potential?
I can only rely on my empirical research. We are still the minority in law firms. We are insufficiently unrepresented in the power structures and I can say I do not know of any black woman attorney who will retire as a lawyer at a firm.
The attrition rate of black female at law firms seems to confirm the stereotype that we are not smart enough to make it, but to place the problem solely on our doorstep is to absolve firms with biased institutional structures which alienate black women.
For as long as law firms remain overwhelmingly white and male — especially at the decision-making level — they will reinforce the message that we do not belong. I cannot say with certainty how law firms and other similar private corporations feel about black women, but in the words of James Baldwin: “I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.” DM
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