A Steep Mountain To Climb

In her 23 years at the Bureau of Land Management, Denise Meridith has risen through the ranks, even serving as the agency's deputy director before taking a position as director of BLM's operations in Arizona. Often when she advanced, she says, she hears the same thing: "You got the job because you are an African-American woman."

Other black women in the government's Senior Executive Service report similar experiences. As of last June, there were just 105 African-American women among the 6,559 career senior executives, according to the Office of Personnel Management. Government Executive spoke with seven of them about their rise into the SES ranks. These women hold a variety of jobs in many agencies, but their career paths have wound through many of the same valleys and over similar barriers. Most made their way to the top through a combination of stiff spine, humor, anger, sacrifice, hard work and the help of colleagues and mentors-most of whom were white.

In a draft report on the progress of minority employment in government, the Merit Systems Protection Board attempts to explain the subtle but still damaging "inertia favoring the status quo" that keeps the numbers of women and minorities in the upper grades disproportionately low, reduces their awards and slows their advancement. Black female executives don't need any explanations. Their careers are littered with incidents of bias-some subtle, some less so-overcome.

P.J. Winzer, who heads the Merit Systems Protection Board's Washington, D.C., regional office, tells of the advice she received from a recruiter as she finished UCLA law school in 1971. "He said since I was a black female and overweight, no one was going to hire me, so the best thing I could do was open up an office of my own and get by on whatever work came my way."

Juanita Wills, director of the Management Systems Office of the Center for Food Safety and Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration, says, "I have had a few people say to my face, 'You were hired because you are black.' That might be true, I say, but the information I was given was there were three highly qualified candidates and I was one of the three. If race played into it, maybe this place needed some diversity."

MSPB found that stereotyping by managers and supervisors, more than flagrant discrimination, stalls careers and slows promotions for women and minorities. Black women executives agree-and say the problem is far from solved.

"White males still have the power and control and haven't gotten away from hiring, promoting and selecting what they're familiar with," says Winzer.

"People are more comfortable with people who are like them," adds Pat Johnson, director of human resources management services for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "That makes the notion of considering people who are different from themselves more difficult."

Most of the women interviewed for this article said their careers had stalled or that they had received lower ratings than they deserved at one time or another. Many took different jobs, switched agencies or even moved across the country to break open new career opportunities.

Barriers

"There were times I had to do assignments I knew I was not being paid for adequately. Quite often I was doing the job before I got promoted to it," recalls Annie Blackwell, who retired in January as the director of the division of policy, planning and program development at the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. "I would see what my boss was doing and I learned to do it and there wasn't one [time] where I didn't eventually get the job."

Meridith moved back to her native East Coast when it became obvious she wouldn't crack GS-11 in the West. She already had been forced to raise dust to move beyond GS-5. "My supervisor," she says, "didn't see why a single female needed more money." She moved to Maryland to a BLM office more accustomed to "nontraditional" employees, where she ultimately advanced to GS-12 before moving on again.

Meridith and other black female executives credit hard work, self-confidence and perseverance with getting them past obstacles. "We have to work hard," says Johnson. "We have to be the best and always, always, always be prepared. The presumption of competence doesn't automatically attach to us. We have to demonstrate our competence time and time again."

"You have to be prepared," says Winzer. A black woman need not necessarily be "superwoman," she says, "but I do think you have to be better. You have to be ready for that attack from the rear. You don't give them anything to use. If I had performed satisfactorily, my boss at one time would have noted it as minimal. I do go out basically to win."

These women pride themselves on not being whiners. Most have more than 20 years of federal service, but none has filed a formal equal employment opportunity complaint.

"People don't say they were better off for filing equal employment opportunity complaints. They say 'never again,' even when they prevail," says Carolyn Smith, assistant administrator for human resources at the Small Business Administration.

Instead of filing complaints, most of the women said they gritted their teeth, bit their tongues and, when no other avenue offered relief, confronted managers.

Smith says a confrontation over an unfair rating turned around her career. She was shocked when she got a "fully successful" instead of an "exceeds fully successful" from a boss she liked and trusted. She went to a second-level supervisor and got the rating increased, but still felt betrayed so she confronted her manager.

"I said I felt so strongly I could no longer work for him unless he acknowledged I was right or convinced me [he was]. He told me he wanted me to see the [lower rating] because [the higher one] would not have motivated me to go beyond what he considered mediocre performance, and he knew I was capable of doing much more. He told me a personal experience of someone doing the same thing for him. It was a gift, given as recognition that I was a black female and needed to have somebody tell me this and that he trusted me.

"It changed me from being happy and accepting to being focused and determined to live up to what that boss thought I could achieve," Smith says.

Smith counts that manager as a mentor, one of many on whom she relied for advice and guidance.

Mentors and Networks

Most African-American women executives came into government in the 1970s, when there were few minorities in management. All the women interviewed for this article said they had mentors, the majority of whom were white managers. These mentors often picked the women, rather than the other way around. Mentors steered the women clear of career shallows and bureaucratic sharks while nudging them beyond the limits of their aspirations.

"My first mentor was a white, western male range conservationist, who went from having a private office to sharing one with a 21-year-old, black, Brooklyn-born woman right out of school," Meridith says in a speech she gives about career-building. "He taught me how to drive a four-wheel- drive truck, build a campfire, cool a can of beer in a stream and how the Bureau ticked. I've had quite a few mentors, but there were no women or minorities because I was at the forefront. They were all white males."

Winzer recalls her white female branch chief at the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare. "She gave me advice on how to proceed and what to expect, so little things would not be a surprise."

When a male colleague began pressing Winzer to help choose colors for his office furniture, "my supervisor told me those were the kinds of things you don't get trapped into as a female." When Winzer topped out at a GS-14 in the HEW general counsel's office in Washington, it was her female mentor who saw to it Winzer moved on to a tougher job in Dallas.

In addition to one-on-one career help, most of the women had the assistance and solace of networks of friends and colleagues.

Wills says that a group of women she met when she worked at Health and Human Services, most of them white, stayed in touch after they moved on to other jobs. "It was like an old girls network," she recalls. "We had not consciously said we were going to do this for each other, but somebody would say, 'I'm looking for somebody' and out minds would go to each other. We did a good job working that thing."

All of the women have gone on to become mentors in their own right for colleagues and others outside government. For example, Winzer is part of a group of women in the Merit Systems Protection Board that sets out to mentor other women there.

"We'd see them about to walk into things and say, 'Oh no, don't do that.' Then we'd have lunch with them, advise them, encourage them to apply for things and take on added responsibilities. We stay there and encourage them. When they get stepped on, they can call us. In some cases you can call on the network to go deal with the person who stepped on them."

"I mentor a lot of people," says Pat Taylor, director of information resources management for health, education and human services at the General Accounting Office. "In our business, you have to be a good writer. We do analysis, so you have to be comfortable with analytic concepts and methodologies. Sometimes I review their writing or let them practice their briefings with me and I give them feedback to sharpen their skills. GAO encourages it. We have an African-American network, an informal gathering of people encouraged to share their experiences."

Blackwell won a reputation as a mentor even before she became a manager. "I've mentored many-male, female, all races. I got the reputation from the GS-14 [level] up of having people come to me for help. Even before, when I became a team leader, they would appoint people [who were] having trouble to work with me."

Families

Black female executives don't just mentor their colleagues. Winzer recently counseled a niece at the request of her family. The young woman had finished college and announced she planned to take a year off to travel through Europe to "find herself" before law school.

"I told her we're not there yet," says Winzer. "We don't have time for you to go play around. We need you to get started. Maybe your great grandchildren can take a year off to go find themselves. We're still behind. She went to law school that year."

Family comes up again and again when you talk with black women in the SES. Most women still soften when they speak of their mothers who lit the fires of their ambition.

"In school a counselor told me I was very neat in writing and said I ought to go to business school," says Taylor. "But then she started talking to me about community college. My mother would ask, 'What kind of doctor or attorney do you want to be?' She said there may be people who try to tell you you're less than [other people]. Don't buy into it."

Winzer says the turning point in her career came when her mother put her "kicking and screaming" on a plane from Louisiana to law school at UCLA. "My mother said, based on my personality, I either had to marry well or get a damn good job, and that was not going to happen staying with her in Louisiana."

Family choices have not been easy for these women. Some eschewed spouses and children to ease and speed their climb up the ladder. Others were single parents and decided to slow their advance at certain points to take advantage of the flexibility of less-demanding jobs. Some, balancing jobs, spouses, and children, have adopted new management styles.

"I'm not married. I have no kids. I had to be totally flexible so I willingly sacrificed that," says Meridith. "I don't think I could have achieved what I did in the time I did if I had had a family. I think now society is more accommodating."

Wills held off applying for the SES until her daughter graduated from high school. "I felt I probably would have to work longer hours and wouldn't be able to get away as much as I could as a GS-15 manager. There wouldn't be the flexibility to say, 'Angie has a game at 4 p.m., and since my schedule's clear I'm going to go.' "

Perceptions

Though they've reached the executive ranks, work life still holds challenges for these women. There's an undercurrent of race and gender to the executive management and leadership problems they face.

"One of my white male managers constantly tells me I'm a quick study and how smart I am," says Johnson. "I don't always appreciate it that he thinks just because I come up with an idea or an approach different from what he expected, I must be very, very smart. I hear, 'You're the smartest little black woman I've ever met.' " She also struggles with feedback from employees who find her intimidating. She suspects people have problems when they find a black woman in a position of authority.

Winzer says she turns the perception that she is intimidating to her advantage. "I've heard that people in headquarters consider me hard and cold. I use that as a tool and don't try to dispel it because when people apply out here from headquarters I want to make sure they're ready to work. We're not for the timid."

Taylor finds her background, which includes a Harvard degree, awes people in a way that works for her. "I think the Harvard things scares people," she says. "I've never had people say to my face I'm not qualified. A few people have not said, 'Congratulations,' but I don't assume everybody who doesn't wish you well has a racial bias. People can only make you feel a certain way if you give your consent. I just don't accept it."

The other women echo Taylor's message. For the most part they advise those they mentor to transform their anger at slights and inequities into something useful.

"I tell them to use their anger, work on the adrenaline," Winzer says. "It's so easy to destroy someone's self-esteem with words. It makes me angry when someone lets that happen because it's letting the [other] person win."

Minorities and women should take a positive approach to break through stereotypes and bias, these executives counsel. "Concentrate on the importance of diversity," says Meridith.

"There's real value in having a diverse workforce," Johnson echoes. "Different people bring different realities to the process, so a solution is going to be better if more people built a consensus around it."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec