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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 13 Numbers 2 and 3, 2003




Patricia S. Parker

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Abstract: This article examines leadership development as revealed in the life histories of 15 African American women who have attained upper level executive positions within large, hierarchical, predominantly White organizations in the United States (dominant culture organizations). Executive leadership development is viewed as a socialization process beginning in early childhood that encompasses both leadership development and organizational socialization. A standpoint feminist framework is used to call attention to the ways marginalized groups, such as African American girls and women, resist the discourses and institutional arrangements that reproduce “outsider status” in the socialization process. Four themes emerged as salient in the women’s narratives about their development as organizational leaders, (a) childhood: education, race, and identity matter, (b) high school: fighting discourses of outsider status, (c) college/early career: resisting controlling identities of strangeness and uppity-ness, and (d) career ascent: strategies for remaining self-defined.

The occupational profile of African American1 women has changed dramatically over the past six decades.  In 1949, 42 percent of African American female employees worked in domestic service.  In 1990, 19 percent were in managerial and professional occupations, and 39 percent were in technical or administrative positions (O’Hare, Pollard, Mann, & Kent, 1992). This upward trend continues, with some reports that African American women are outpacing their male counterparts in school and work settings (Cose, 2003).2 As more African American women move into leadership roles in U.S. corporations and public institutions, it is important to document their leadership development experiences and broaden our understanding of how girls and women develop as organizational leaders.

In this article, executive leadership development is viewed as an ongoing socialization process beginning in early childhood that encompasses both leadership development and organizational socialization. Leadership development is characterized as a life span process with early, as well as later, life events, affecting the development of leadership potential (Avolio & Gibbons, 1988). Similarly, organizational socialization, broadly conceptualized, is the process through which persons develop their work career from childhood through employment and advancement in ones chosen vocation (Jablin, 1987, 2001). Communication is central to both leadership development and organizational socialization processes, as messages received in familial and other social and cultural contexts influence a person’s vocational choice and career advancement (Jablin, 2001), as well as their development of leadership potential (Gibbons, 1986; Kotter, 1982).

The mainstream literature on organizational socialization in general and leadership development in particular, is based on the problematic assumption that Anglo3- and male-defined theories and practices can be generalized to other cultural groups. Bullis and Stout (2000) call attention to the universalizing assumption of mainstream organizational socialization theories that “specific, linear, male patterns pertain generally to the population” (p. 63). This universalization is problematic because it erases the experiences of people whose lives do not follow these patterns, and limits the opportunity for alternative patterns to be considered (Bullis & Stout, 2000). Along similar lines, in the leadership development literature, two of the most influential studies on executive leadership development are based on the lives of White middle class men and assumed generalizable to all populations (Gibbons, 1986; Kotter, 1982). Because organizational leadership learning and practice is essentially culture-based (Biggart & Hammilton, 1994), it seems especially shortsighted to assume that White and male-defined perspectives can be applied to the lives of women of color.

This article examines leadership development and organizational socialization as revealed in the life histories of 15 African American women who have attained upper level executive positions within large, hierarchical, predominantly White organizations in the United States (dominant culture organizations). The study documents messages and discourses that framed the women’s leadership development experiences, from their earliest childhood memories through their early career experiences, revealing their communication strategies for resisting, transcending and transforming perceived exclusionary practices in vocational and organizational socialization.

I begin with a discussion of feminist standpoint theory as a framework for analysis, followed by a critical review of the literatures on leadership development and organizational socialization and delineation of the research questions that guided the study. Then I present the study of African American women executives’ leadership development.

Feminist Standpoint Theory

A useful framework for analyzing African American women’s leadership development is feminist standpoint theory (Collins, 1990, 1998; Harding, 1991; Harstock, 1983, 1990; O’Brien Hallstein, 1997, 2000; Smith, 1987; Wood, 1992, 1998). Feminist standpoint theorists argue that women as a group occupy a distinct position and potential standpoint in culture because, “under the sexual division of labor ensconced in patriarchy, women have been systematically exploited, oppressed, excluded, devalued, and dominated” (O’Brien Hallstein, 2000, p. 5). Emphasizing a collective “women’s experience,” however, is problematic, because it produces a tension between highlighting women’s experiences as a critique of hegemonic discourses on the one hand, and avoiding essentializing women’s experiences on the other (Alvesson & Billing, 1997; Bell, Orbe, Drummond, & Camara, 2000). African American, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian American women have criticized feminist scholarship for being overly concerned with White, heterosexual, middle-class women’s issues (Andolsen, 1986; Collins, 1990; hooks, 1981; Moraga & Anzaldua, 1983). In early works by standpoint theorists, heterosexual White women’s values and experiences are often put forth as representative of all women’s values and experiences, rendering invisible the experiences of lesbians or women of color (Harstock, 1983).

Standpoint theorists responding to critiques of essentialism (i.e. Allen, 1996; Buzzanell, 1994) assert that rather than essentializing the category woman, feminist standpoint theory encourages us to explore the experiences of many types of women and to incorporate notions of differences into standpoint theory (O’Brien Hallstein, 2000). From this perspective, a standpoint is more than simply occupying a particular societal position. Standpoints are achieved through “active, political resistance to work against the material embodiment of the perspective and experience of the dominant group.  It is the act of having to push against the experience-made-reality of the hegemonic group that makes it a political standpoint and potentially liberating” (Welton, 1997, p.11). While earlier work using standpoint theory emphasized women’s common experiences, current work, including the present analysis, recognizes that women’s common experience is different among groups to the extent that material experience differs. That is, racial, class, and sexual differences create the potential for different standpoints among women (Harding, 1991).

As a method of analysis, standpoint theory provides an epistemology that focuses on the production of knowledge that leads to emancipation from oppressive social conditions (Harding, 1987). A fundamental tenet of standpoint epistemology is that the standpoints of women and others marginalized by intersecting systems of oppression (i.e., race, class, gender, age, and sexual orientation), emerge from positions from which they are able to see, not only their own positions, but the dominant system as a whole. This view from the margins is often referred to as the “outsider within” perspective (Collins, 1990, 1998). Outsiders within the dominant culture are assumed to be able to provide a more complete and less distorting social perspective (Harding, 1987) than is possible from the point of view of the “insiders” or more privileged group members (usually White, middle-class men).

Two important goals of standpoint epistemology are to center the experiences of women and others marginalized by dominant culture, and to create positive social change (Dougherty & Krone, 2000). Standpoint research explores the practices of people who, in their everyday interactions, “take up resistance and struggle…producing knowledge that extends and expands their and our grasp of how things are put together and hence their and our ability to organize and act effectively” (Smith, 1987, p. 96).

In the present analysis, I use a Black feminist standpoint framework to generate knowledge about organizational leadership socialization. Collins (1990) argues that a Black feminist standpoint emerges from African American women’s location as outsiders-within systems of domination, and directs attention to African American women as self-defined, self-reliant individuals confronting race, gender, and class oppression. From the vantage point of the outsider within, African American women have created an independent, viable, yet subjugated knowledge concerning our own subordination and strategies for empowerment (Collins, 1990). From that vantage point, Black women also have created knowledge about leadership that historically has been ignored or devalued (Parker, 2001). The present study places Black women at the center of analysis to reveal knowledge about leadership development and organizational socialization from their standpoints.

Review of Literature and Research Questions

Two related streams of literature provide the background for this study.  The first is leadership development, including research on gender and leadership. The second is organizational socialization theory and research.

Communication Contexts for Leadership Development

Researchers in executive leadership development attempt to explain the familial, cultural, and social influences on leadership capacity (Bass, 1990; Burns, 1978; Gibbons, 1986; Kotter, 1982). During a leader's early life—childhood, adolescence, college, and early career—messages they receive in contexts such as family, school, part-time jobs, and community activities are influential antecedents to leadership development. Research on the communicative contexts for leadership development has focused almost exclusively on the lives of White, middle-class men and, more recently, on the experiences of White middle-class women. Two widely cited studies of executive leadership development, based on the lives of White men, are exemplary. Gibbons (1986) developed a model of life span events that contribute to leadership, based on the retrospective life histories of sixteen top-level corporate executives. Among the most significant antecedents to leadership was the predisposition established as a result of parental encouragement and the expectation for the leader to set high standards for achievement. Similarly, Kotter's (1982) study of fifteen general managers in U.S. organizations revealed that their leadership development was marked by an ethic of accomplishment stimulated by messages of encouragement from parents and significant adults.

Although their studies were not framed as standpoint analyses, it can be argued that Gibbons (1986) and Kotter (1982) provide knowledge about leadership development from the perspectives of White men. Yet these studies are often represented as general knowledge about leadership development to be applied across social groups (Conger, Kanungo, & Associates, 1988; Yukl, 2002). From a feminist standpoint perspective, it seems likely that messages which influence leadership development within the context of assumed White male privilege would be constructed and interpreted differently within the communicative context of women’s lives.

Feminist scholars have challenged the gender bias in the leadership literature.  However, this research is based almost exclusively on the lives of White, middle-class women, and assumed generalized to all women (Aries, 1987; Grossman & Chester, 1990; Harrigan, 1977; Henning & Jardim, 1977; Helgesen, 1990; Rosener, 1990). The underlying premise of most gender and leadership research is that, within familial and other social and cultural contexts, women and men are socialized as children to engage in distinctive styles of communication that achieve different purposes, rules, and understandings of how to interpret talk (Tannen, 1990). These gendered patterns of communication are theorized to produce two competing models of leadership. One model is based on the notion of “masculine” instrumentality, and the other is based on the notion of “feminine” collaboration. Feminists argue that women’s “distinctly female” style of leadership is superior to “masculine” leadership, but is stifled by male-dominated structuring processes (Grossman & Chester, 1990; Helgesen, 1990). 

Communicative contexts for leadership socialization among African American girls and women. Both the “feminine” and “masculine” models of leadership socialization erase the experiences of African American women because they emerge from the standpoint of White middle-class privilege, and because they are constructed within communicative contexts assumed to be race-neutral (Parker, 2001). For African American girls and women, the interlocking systems of race, gender, and class oppression frame the communicative contexts for leadership development. Rather than generalizing an Anglo-defined “distinctly feminine” style of leadership to the experiences of African American women, research is needed that takes into account the raced, gendered, and classed contexts in which African American girls and women construct a “feminine” identity and leadership style (Parker and Ogilvie, 1996; Parker, 2001).

Some research suggests that within school contexts, African American girls’ identity formation takes the form of resistance to the taken-for-granted definitions of femaleness (White, middle-class womanhood) (Duke, 2002; Fordham, 1993; Gilligan, Taylor, Tolman, Sullivan, Pleasants & Dorney, 1992; Ladner, 1971). However, research is needed to explore the connections between African American girls’ resistance and their potential for leadership development.

In the family context, important components of the leadership development process, such as parental messages of encouragement and achievement during early childhood and adolescence, may be enacted to prepare African American children for interaction within dominant culture institutions and systems. Orbe (1998a) uses the term “co-cultural communication” to conceptualize this type of interaction. Co-cultural theory describes how those without societal power communicate with persons who are privileged within dominant structures (usually European American, heterosexual, able-bodied men). Orbe (1998b) argues that co-cultural group members (i.e., people of color, women, gay/lesbian/bisexuals, persons with different abilities) enact one or more of nine communication orientations in their interactions within dominant culture organizations. The nine communication orientations are on a continuum of nonassertive, assertive, and aggressive communication approaches, associated with three possible acculturation outcomes—assimilation, accommodation, and separation (Orbe, 1998a). Briefly, assimilation involves attempts to eliminate cultural differences, including the loss of any distinctive characteristics, to fit in with the dominant culture. Accommodation, referred to in this article by the more common term “pluralism,” involves attempts to change the organizational culture so that many cultural experiences are reflected in it. Separation involves rejecting the notion of forming a common bond with dominant group members or members of other groups.4 The nine communication orientations range from nonassertive assimilation to aggressive separation and encompass a number of corresponding co-cultural communication practices.5

Orbe (1998a) argues that a person’s selection for interacting with the dominant culture is influenced by ongoing interactions, beginning in childhood. This argument is supported by empirical research on childhood development which shows that African American children receive messages that help them to do well simultaneously in both Black and non-Black cultures (McAdoo, 2002). Research specific to the experiences of African American girls shows that Black girls develop cultural conventions of Black womanhood that may help an adolescent girl to stay in relationship with herself and her community and be a source of personal self-esteem and pride (Gilligan, et al., 1992).

Past research has not adequately explored the extent to which messages about interacting within dominant culture systems influence African American girls’ and women’s leadership development.  Jones’ (1992) retrospective interview study of 17 African American women college presidents provides some preliminary insights. She examined cognitive attributes, leadership-developing activities (such as those associated with school and work) and parallel life experiences that function as leadership antecedents. Jones’ (1992) study revealed “quite powerful” messages derived from the presidents’ interactions with parents and significant adult others as children (p. 114).  Such messages were “Always push the system,” “Be unwilling to settle for less,” “Set the standard, don't follow the crowd,” and “Destiny is choice, not chance” (p. 114). The findings of Jones' (1992) study provide some evidence that messages about interacting within dominant culture systems influence African American women’s leadership.  However, more research is needed to provide specific, qualitative details about the sources and content of such messages.

In summary, past research on the communicative contexts for leadership development has focused almost exclusively on the lives of White, middle-class men and women, and is inadequate for understanding the experiences of African American women’s leadership development. Research is needed to document the communicative contexts of African American girls’ and women’s leadership development. The following research question guided the study:

RQ1    What are common themes in the messages African American women executives identify from their childhood, adolescence, high school and professional experiences as influencing their development as executive leaders?

Organizational Socialization

Socialization is traditionally conceptualized in the organizational and managerial communication literature as a phase process in which organizational “outsiders” move through various stages to become organizational “insiders.”  However, for African American women and other marginalized groups in dominant culture organizations, insider status is never achieved (Collins, 1998; Orbe, 1998b). Accordingly, scholars following critical and feminist perspectives have re-conceptualized socialization as a process in which there is a dual emphasis on producing insiders and reproducing and sustaining outsider status among marginalized groups (Allen, 1996, 2000; Bullis & Stout, 2000; Clair, 1996; Smith & Turner, 1995).

Bullis and Stout (re)define socialization as “a set of communicative processes that produce and reproduce relationships through which domination, subordination, and marginalization occur (Bullis & Stout, 2000, p. 59). They argue, following Englebrecht (1994) that rather than the clearly defined steps of stage models, socialization for women may be seen more as a game of “blindman’s bluff,” in which the steps of socialization are not visible, and clues are not derived from other players.  Instead, women move through a continuous process of being marked as other and excluded.

Allen (1996) addresses this key issue in her review of organizational socialization theory from her standpoint as a Black woman.  She points out that theories of vocational choice/socialization and organizational choice/entry do not account for the social and political contexts that influence important issues such as organizational or work information sources, candidates’ expectations, and employment interviewing as a recruiting and selection device.  For Black women and other people of color, these issues are influenced by the interactive systems of racism, sexism, and classism that produce societal stereotypes about occupation, and constrain the context for advancement (Allen, 1996).

Collins (1998) argues that for African American girls and women within dominant culture institutions, this process of marking and exclusion may take the form of surveillance strategies embedded in organizational discourses. Collins theorizes that such strategies operate to fix meanings of “appropriate” and “professional” identity and behavior and to “keep race at bay” in school or work settings (Collins, 1998, p. 39).  These meanings are fixed through power-based communicative practices in which aspects of Black girls’ and Black women’s behavior and identity are monitored, evaluated, and otherwise made the subject of seemingly random scrutiny and speculation.

From their critical review of the traditional socialization literature, Bullis and Stout (2001) call for research that would provide a better understanding of oppressive relationships as well as resistance and change. They suggest that socialization research should examine the standpoints women develop from their position as perpetual outsiders, placing at the center of analysis, reports of resistance strategies among persons marginalized by exclusionary discourses. The present study answers Bullis and Stout’s research call as it relates to African American women executives’ leadership socialization and development by examining the following research question:

RQ2    What communicative strategies of resistance and transformation did the participants use as they advanced through their careers?


The research reported here is part of a larger study that examined African American women executives’ leadership socialization, communication strategies for managing dominant culture constraints and opportunities, and leadership communication (Parker, 1997). The data analysis for the socialization portion of that study is reported in this article. The research followed a field study design (multiple case method) and used qualitative methods.


The participants in the study were 15 African American women in upper level executive positions within large, hierarchical, predominantly White organizations in the United States (dominant culture organizations). The executives were chosen based on the following criteria:  (a) they were employed at a dominant culture organization at the time of the study; (b) they were at the level of director or above; (c) they had line responsibility; and (d) they had supervisory responsibilities. These criteria are consistent with those used by other researchers interested in top management leadership by women (e.g. Mainiero, 1994; Rosener, 1990).

A modified snowball technique was used to identify study participants. Using sources in the popular press (Black Enterprise Magazine, Ebony Magazine, Working Woman, Fortune Magazine) that published lists of women in top management positions, I compiled a list of 50 women who fit the sampling criteria.  I obtained the names of other women through personal contacts, networking at professional conferences, and references from executives who participated in the study.  Altogether, this process yielded the names of 70 African American women executives who fit the study criteria. Because of funding limitations, I only interviewed women in the southwestern, southern and southeastern regions of the United States. The final group of participants was fifteen African American women executives in five states and in Washington, DC. Six executives worked at organizations in the southern region of the United States (Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee), six were in the southeast (Georgia and Washington, D. C.), and three were in the Pacific southwest (California).

In addition to regional diversity, the executives varied in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds, age, and tenure, as well as organizational type and industry. In terms of socioeconomic background, the executives’ parents’ occupations ranged from a single-parent domestic worker to a husband and wife team of physicians.  The executives ranged in age from their late thirties to early sixties. Most of the women were in their forties at the time of the interview, with an average age of 47. Nine of the women had been with their organization for 16 years or more, including five that had an organizational tenure of 20 years or more. Thirteen of the executives had been in their current positions for less than three years. Seven executives were employed at public organizations, and eight worked at private corporations. The industries represented in the sample were insurance, communications, education, and state and federal government.  Eight of the women were employed in public institutions and seven were employed in private corporations.

Data Collection

The data for this portion of the study were collected through face-to-face interviews with each executive. Interviews followed a semi-structured interview protocol, based on topics related to the research questions (see Appendix A). Most interviews lasted about one hour; they ranged from 45 minutes to two and one-half hours. The interviews were tape recorded and transcribed.

Data Analysis

The interview transcripts were coded using constant comparative analysis in which data were assigned to an emergent open coding scheme (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). As an internal validity check, I recorded propositions and hypotheses that emerged as I made comparisons among and between the cases. Consistent with the constructivist approach to grounded theory analysis (see Charmaz, 2000), during the coding process, I used memos to record my thinking about connections and relationships among the data and emerging themes. The use of memos during the analytic phase allowed me to remain close to the respondents’ experiences, to remain focused on their meanings, and to develop categories consistent with studied life.


This study investigated two questions relative to African American women executives’ leadership development.  The first question asked, What are common themes in the messages African American women executives identify from their childhood, adolescence, high school and professional experiences as influencing their development as executive leaders?  The second question asked, What communicative strategies of resistance and transformation did the participants use as they advanced through their careers? The participants’ narratives revealed insights about specific messages and discourses that framed their socialization experiences through childhood, high school, and early career (see Table 1), as well as the resistance strategies they used as they advanced through their careers (see Table 2). Four themes emerged as salient in the women’s narratives, (a) childhood: education, race, and identity matter, (b) high school: fighting discourses of outsider status, (c) college/early career: resisting controlling identities of strangeness and uppity-ness, and (d) career ascent: strategies for remaining self-defined.

Childhood:  Education, Race and Identity Matter

The executives reported that their parents and other influential adults were the primary sources of influence during their formative years.  Eleven of the participants were raised by both biological parents, two were raised by one biological parent and a stepparent, one was raised by her mother, and one was raised by her maternal grandmother.   Regardless of the family composition, all the executives reported that their interaction within their primary family unit and with other influential adults (such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and teachers) helped shape their present leadership behavior and communication. The predominant themes associated with this familial influence are the resonant messages they received from their parents and other influential adults.  The predominant message themes were (a) educational achievement, (b) understanding race relations, and (c) developing a strong self-identity.


Table 1

Salient Sources of Influence for African American Women Executives During Childhood, High School, and College/Early Career

Life Stage Theme

Source of Influence

Salient Messages

Childhood: Education, Race, and Identity Matter






Other adults including:



     African American teachers

Educational achievement


Understanding race relations


Developing self confidence, responsibility, and integrity

High School: Resisting Outsider Status

Anglo American high school counselors

Negative achievement

College/Early Career:

Resisting Controlling Identities

African American teachers

Anglo American teachers

Positive achievement messages

Positive and negative achievement messages

Educational achievement. Many of the executives emphasized that education was central to their parents’ aspirations for their children.  One executive explained:

I knew they [my parents] wanted us to do well, you know, to...add positively to society.  I don’t know that they had anything in mind for anyone, except their goal was for us to complete our education...

Similarly, one executive compared the messages she received from her parents emphasizing education to the messages received by her White female counterparts:

I was at a retreat this past weekend...a Black/White kind of thing, and people were talking about the role of women, and referred to girls growing up and education not being important and what was important was that you married somebody who takes care of you.  Four girls in my family. . . I don’t ever once remember having a conversation about whom you’re going to marry.  Never.  Or about getting married. 

INTERVIEWER: So, at this retreat, that was sort of the White perspective?

EXECUTIVE: Yeah.  You got it.  Absolutely.  The White perspective.  Just never…If the conversation was going to come up, surely it would come up in a family of four girls.  But that’s just not ever anything that was discussed, “Who are you going to marry?” Or making sure that you were going to marry the right person. 

INTERVIEWER: What do you think were your parents’ expectations for you?

EXECUTIVE: That we’d go off to school and go off to college and do something meaningful as a result of having been educated well.  Being well educated.

In addition to the emphasis on contributing to society in meaningful ways, other executives were taught during their childhood that education is especially important for them, as African Americans, to be able to transcend the economic limitations of their parents and other significant adults.  Among the executives whose parents or guardians worked as laborers, the clear message was “get an education so that you do not have to work like this.”   One executive recalled:

Well, my grandmother was a hard worker.  And probably the thing that I learned was that I didn’t like manual work and I didn’t want to do that because, you know, she came from a rural background and she had a garden and she had some land where she raised cotton and she raised pigs and hogs and chickens and stuff.  And I hated doing that.  I know she was a very big believer in education. . . going to school... [her belief was that] you needed to [do] better than she [has done], and she really made sacrifices to that effect. 

Teachers also were very instrumental in emphasizing the “get an education” message, as one executive recalled:

I think my teachers were always out there, you know, telling us that if we ever wanted to get off the farm and stop picking cotton or chopping cotton that we were going to have to get an education.  So that was drilled into us over and over again—the importance of education.

Race relations. The second predominant sub-theme related to childhood socialization describes an approach to dealing with race relations in the dominant culture.  Among these messages, two distinct approaches emerged, avoidance and confrontation, which correspond to Orbe’s (1998a) acculturation outcomes, assimilation, accommodation (pluralism), and separation. An avoidance approach was evident in messages that emphasized separation and assimilation as preferred outcomes for interacting with the dominant culture. A confrontation approach was evident in messages that emphasized the pluralism approach. The avoidance approach to race relations, emphasizing separation, is exemplified in the following passage:

I went to a segregated elementary school, I went to a segregated high school, and when I decided to go to college, I looked at predominantly Black universities because, quite frankly, as I looked at the newscasts of federal marshals having to escort people to the University of Alabama--and I was sixteen years old when I graduated from high school-- that was not something my parents, my mom, my stepfather, nor my grandparents wanted me to go through.

As evidenced in the above passage, the key message that informs the avoidance approach to race relations, emphasizing a separatist acculturation outcome, is avoiding cultural confrontation with the dominant culture through an emphasis on one’s own culture.

Other executives described experiences that reveal the assimilation outcome of acculturation, which also is facilitated by an avoidance approach to race relations. However, avoidance of cultural confrontation is facilitated through a de-emphasis or denial of cultural conflict. Two executives recounted how their early experiences led them to believe that racism was something that happened in the South, and not in the part of the country in which they lived.

I grew up in the North, many people I know now grew up in the South, so I did not experience first-hand the racial prejudices that some of my peers did in Atlanta and other Southern areas.   I have one very, very vague recollection of one trip to New Orleans by train, and seeing a sign, which said, “Colored” and “White.”  But short of that, and I don’t know if we were just sheltered from it or, I suspect, it just wasn’t as acceptable in the North to have, in the years that I was growing up, to have those outward segregation-type signs.

Other executives’ descriptions of messages about race fit the more classic assimilationist acculturation outcome, which prescribes that hard work and persistence allow one to transcend racial barriers:

We grew up in a neighborhood where there were Whites and Blacks in the neighborhood.  We didn’t feel that we were less of a citizen than anybody else.…My mother would tell us things that happened when she was growing up, but not to the point where we felt that, just be careful that you're going to be discriminated against and be aware of certain things. Their message was just work hard, do the best you can, give more than what's expected and get a good education.

Collectively, these accounts convey an approach to race relations that denies or downplays the significance of race in one's personal experiences.

On the other hand, some of the participants emphasized a confronting approach to race relations, which corresponds to a preferred acculturation outcome of pluralism. One version of the pluralist acculturation outcome is a focus on economic pluralism:

On the other side of my family [was] my grandmother, again a very strong influence...[S]he was an entrepreneur.   She was a woman who owned hotels and restaurants.  She came out of southwest Virginia on a mule with a cardboard suitcase because she had worked in the kitchen of White folks and decided that she didn't want that to happen for her children.  So I knew her to be an uneducated woman compared to, say, my paternal grandparents, both of whom were college graduates who placed great store both in education, but more importantly, earning your own way.   It is through her and my father that I learned the phrase, “It is important to have your own ‘Black money’,” before it was ever popular to use the phrase.…I have always been taught and knew until I guess I was in undergraduate school that it was very important to be within a system, to move the system to ends that served people who are in the Black community.

In addition to having one's own “Black money” and moving systems to ends that serve the Black community, another variation of the pluralist approach is confronting or changing dominant culture systems to become more inclusive of non-dominant cultures. Two executives described messages that fit this approach to achieving cultural pluralism. One executive describes vividly how her parents taught her to confront systems of oppression, even if it meant standing alone.

When I started second grade I was six years old, because I had started school a year early, when I was five, at the community school, which was Black.  And I remember crying and being very upset and telling my mother I don't want to be going to a White school.  My mother said, “Don't worry; it's not White it's red brick.” And so that kind of helped shape my ideas.  You know, in terms of it's okay to stand alone.  It's okay to do the difficult thing because, you know, this is life.  So that's the leadership thing for me.

Developing a strong self-identity. The final predominant theme from the executives’ childhood narratives relates to messages from influential adults that helped them develop a strong sense of self. The executives cited parents, teachers and other members of the community, who provided discipline, encouragement, and a view of the world that was beyond their present circumstances.  Three sub-themes define this theme: self-confidence, responsibility, and integrity.

Self-confidence is an important theme in the messages the women received during their childhood.  The following passage exemplifies this theme:

I don’t believe my mother really understood all of the confidence that she was building in me, as I kind of had my own personality, but then she built me up a lot just in terms of her... the way she would speak with [my siblings and me]….We’d say, “Oh, we can’t do this.”  And my mother had this saying and she would always say it, “Don’t tell me you can’t do it.  They killed old can’t, beat the devil out of couldn’t, whipped old wouldn’t till he would.  Don’t tell me you can’t do it.”  And you know, back when you’re young, you’re like, “What in the world is she talking about?”  But I can tell you, that has really become something that I share with a lot of people in my work, and I do some community work, and I share that. 

Another executive describes how she learned independence and self-sufficiency from her mother: 

My mother always had a lot going on.  She always thought she should have her own business, and she never had the opportunity, really, to get that going.  She communicated to me a lot the need to be independent, the need to have self-sufficiency and be able to think and move on your own.

Similarly, another executive says she received messages of self-definition from her mother:

I know I got from my mother the ability to say whatever it is I want to say and be comfortable with who and what I am—not allowing people to violate you in any way, form, or fashion, based upon their standards.  And, basically to a strong person.  My mother is probably one of the strongest women I have ever known.

Many of the women shared how Black female role models whom they knew or had only heard about influenced their sense of self:

I was surrounded by some very strong Black women…There were many women who were, what I would consider to be very independent even though…they weren't standing on their feet economically, but their mindset was very independent…They didn't ask permission to do things….In fact, my father's mother had a very strong community imperative.  She actually single-handedly forced the integration of some services for the Columbus Public Schools in the early part of the century.  You know, I'm talking 1910, 1912. So, she was very active in the community and very well perceived and I just assumed she had that ability; nobody gave it to her.

Collectively, these accounts reveal how the women, at very early stages of their life, were encouraged and taught to develop self-confidence, to be independent and resilient, and to remain true to oneself, no matter what the circumstance.

Messages emphasizing being responsible or taking charge also were salient. For example one executive recalled:

I was the oldest.  And so I thought there were a far more expectations of me…. I was kind of responsible for my sisters and brothers, and [my parents] felt that I was responsible….So I've had an opportunity to really grow up from the very beginning, being the leader, taking charge, organizing to get whatever work done that we had to get done.

Another executive recalled being encouraged by her father to take part in extracurricular school activities as a means of learning responsibility.  Other executives were taught to be socially responsible, especially in terms of having a sense of community and fulfilling one's civic duty:

So, the family tradition was of leadership and also a great sense of responsibility for the broader community.  I have recollections of  [my maternal] grandmother whose back porch was always filled with clothing, clean, folded clothing in sizes that she routinely gave to others. And she was always identifying people, some of whom were in her employ, worked in her restaurant, who needed help.  She brought thirteen of her relatives out of that almost plantation‑like environment in southwest Virginia, to see them educated as well.  And so, that's sort of the tradition of the family. 

The executives gave descriptions of messages that focused on developing a sense of personal integrity.  The messages emphasized altruism (especially as related to the Black community and service to others less fortunate), religion, having a strong work ethic, “the golden rule,” and not forgetting your roots.  The following passage offers one succinct example:

I learned fairness from my mother.  I learned how to treat people like I wanted to be treated.  She told all of us that you're as good as the best person, and as bad as the worst; and you speak to everyone….Just because you're up today, you don't know where you're going to be tomorrow.  So don't forget where you came from.

Among these executives, integrity and “not forgetting where you come from” applies to those who have somewhat humble economic beginnings as well as to those who came from more economically prosperous backgrounds.   One executive describes how her traditional, upper-middle class southern family instilled in her the traditions of religion and service to the community:

There is so much unspoken.  I knew that we were special.  I knew that we were different.  I knew that we had advantage, but with awareness of whatever this specialness came the obligation to do for, and to give to, and support others, especially in education.

High School: Fighting Discourses of Outsider Status

The women’s high school years were rife with both opportunities and challenges. Most of the women reported having aspirations of going on to college, and many of them were already very clear about pursuing specific careers in professions, such as medicine and law.  Although they continued to find support from their parents and other influential adults, it is during this time period when the women began to encounter discourses that would mark them as outsiders—as not being college material, or not being considered for careers in medicine or other White male-dominated professions.  These encounters usually took the form of “negative achievement messages” from Anglo-American teachers and counselors. One executive gave this account:

Let me tell you about one critical [incident that] I know. . . strongly directed me.  [When I was in the] ninth grade, I had a…White male counselor…. I was…selecting my next classes, and he [told me] that I would be better off…taking home economics and sewing. . . something that I could use later.  And, at the time, what I was looking for was college prep classes…. number one, because mom was pointing me that way, and number two, because I, you know, I wanted to go…. I, of course, was highly upset over it and insulted . . . .I told him that I didn't t want to do that.  And so I went home and told my mom, which was the end of that… I got to take the college prep classes like I wanted to.  But, his focus was that I could do something more domestic to help myself later in the future, because I probably would not go to college….And that still rang in the back of my head, you know, for years and years and years….that influenced my direction and gave me more focus to say, “ I m going to do this just because you don't want me to do it.”

            Other executives gave similar accounts of negative achievement messages during high school:

In high school, the first thing the counselor asked me was which technical school was I going to, although my grades were decent.  I had been the student body president, and I'd been all of the other things.  She felt that I should have gone to some type of technical school.  And I said, “No way!  I'm going to college.”  

In another account:

In high school I was marked down because I had a teacher tell me that I should learn how not to have...that I should get used to having B's because as a Black person that would happen to me later.  Even though I had an A in the course, he says, well, I'm going to give you a “B” because, well, you know...

These experiences represent challenges to the strong sense of self that the women had begun to develop as children through the positive influences of their mothers and other role models.  That the women resisted and persisted in their career aspirations in spite of these challenges provides evidence of their strong self-identity.

Early Career:  Resisting Controlling Identities of “Strangeness” and “Uppity-ness”

During their years in college, graduate school and the early part of their careers, the women were confronted with experiences that tested the strong sense of self identity that had been instilled in them by their parents and role models, and that had already been challenged during their high school years. As in high school, the women continued to receive both positive and negative achievement messages in the years that followed. However, within the socio-cultural contexts of college, graduate school, and public and private organizations, issues of identity negotiation became even more salient.   Among the 15 executives, nine gave accounts of salient messages from college professors and managers that related directly to achievement.  Seven of those were related to negative achievement.  The women found themselves having to prove that they “belong” in contexts where their mere presence as Black women seemed “strange.” One executive gave the following account:

 I had a math professor. He may have actually been my advisor.  You know, I probably didn’t belong in the math department; there is probably no question about it.  But the message that I received was one that “You don’t belong here.  And you can’t do this.” And I guess the way I received it, and I can’t honestly say it was a result of the way it was sent, because I don’t know. The way I received it was, “You can’t do this you little Black kid.”  You know, “You don’t belong in this math department.”  So my reaction, rather than evaluating objectively and saying, you know, “Right!  I don’t belong in this department,” I just did it anyway like “You’re not going to tell me I can’t do this.”  And I struggled through and did it.  There is no question in my mind; I didn’t need to be a math major.  Just some people can do it really easily, and people who are math majors are usually whizzes in that area.  So I was probably that much more disadvantaged in terms of how well I could do in the class and how well someone else can do.

INTERVIEWER:  So did you change majors eventually?

EXECUTIVE: No. What I did is…on top of the math major…[I added] the requirements for the political science major.  So I did both.  For better or worse, I guess, you know, I was going to make sure that nobody was going to tell me I couldn’t do that.  So I finished it. 

As demonstrated in the above account, the women challenged discourses of “strangeness” through a determination to achieve beyond the expectations of others.  However this eagerness to achieve was sometimes viewed as what can be termed “uppity-ness,” an evocative term that conjures up images of the oppression of the “Jim Crow” south. One executive recalled a manager who sought to stifle her achievement early in her career: 

I remember this woman who was a first-level manager.  And she stopped me one evening and she said, “I have noticed you always taking those practices home.”  And I said, “Yes.” And she says, “Why are you doing that?” And I said, “Well, there are some areas I just want to make sure that I’m really clear about. . . you know, have sort of immediate recall about the process.” And she told me she didn’t want me doing that.  And I said, “Why?”  And she said because she didn’t think that any…service assistant should be smarter than another one.  And you know, this is…the value of not having any hang-ups about diversity or anything like that . . . I mean, I just looked at her and laughed, and said, “Humph.” And I just walked off with my practice under my arm.  I mean things like that just never fazed me.

Another executive described how one manager attempted to downplay her previous job experience:

 I can remember when I worked for this...manager, the person who hired me on the job.  And at the time, I felt I had come to the company with some pre-knowledge that would help me do a better job, [even though] the experience was not related to this business.  One of the things the manager said to me that I would always remember is that he said, “Your previous experience would not be of any…benefit to you here.” Once I got on the floor and saw the work, I could do three times as much work as someone else, because I had had training…in [my previous job] to spot errors…. it was probably more of a challenge for me to let him see that my years of experience somewhere else really was a great benefit to him….This is 26 years later and I still remember that comment that he made.

In contrast to the accounts of negative achievement messages, two executives reported positive messages that were particularly salient during their early career development.  These women said they received encouragement from a White female professor and an African American male professor, respectively.  One executive recalled an influential professor's message at the historically White women's college she had attended:

When I was at [a Northeastern women's college], the person who was most critical to my considering going on to graduate school was a White female professor in the business department who had gone to Harvard business school and was instrumental in talking to me and a number of other Black women about going on.  So, I know that she was influential with [several other African American women who are now quite successful]  So, I mean, this woman kind of opened up the world to a lot of people because one of the problems is, when you are fairly young and you don’t have a whole lot of role models, you don’t even . . . you are very narrow in your concept of what you can do.  So, until someone says, “Have you ever thought about this?”  It just broadens your world considerably.  And I think, nowadays, people see people doing all kinds of things, but in those days it was much more unusual.  Besides, I would never have thought about it. 

An executive who attended a historically Black university in the South during the fifties reported another example of a positive achievement message:

I remember one day, I had really decided to quit [college], and I was sitting out on the steps, and my biology professor [an African American man] came and sat down beside me.  He knew that I was talking about quitting and going home.  And he said, “ Well, you know you can quit and go back home.  What are you going to do? You'll probably go back home, go back to the cotton patch, have babies, and live the same way your parents did.  If you stay here, you might be able to move ahead and…someday you’ll be able to pay it back.”  And you know it was really at a very critical time for me.  I will never forget that.

The executives emphasized that during their early career development, they drew from the inner strength and knowledge they gained from their parents and other significant adults in their lives.  The messages and sources of influence served as a powerful force that helped them meet successfully the challenges and opportunities they encountered and that strengthened their capacities to lead others as they advanced in their careers. 

Career Ascent: Using Strategies for Remaining Self-Defined.

As the executives recalled their career progress, they revealed several critical incidents that show a distinct model of opportunities that can lead to advancement within dominant culture organizations. The trajectory revealed in these incidents can be described in three steps: (1) attracting attention by being hardworking and doing good work; (2) gaining organization-wide visibility through successfully working on “pariah projects” (e.g. projects no one wants to take on) or projects that affect the company's bottom line; and (3) getting the “stamp of approval” from a member of top management (or at least getting his or her attention).  Because each step generally causes progression to the next, these steps form a trajectory that, in the case of the women in this study, led into senior management.  If this trajectory represents a road map to career advancement, from the women’s point of view, remaining self-defined is the fuel that keeps them moving ahead.

The executives’ accounts of their experiences as they advanced in their career within dominant culture organizations revealed four strategies for remaining self defined:   (a) know who you are, (b) be the best,  (c) build a support system, and (d) contribute to the organization.  Each of these categories contains specific communicative strategies for remaining self-defined within dominant culture organizations (see Table 2).

Table 2

African American Women Executives’ Communicative Strategies for Remaining Self-defined Within Dominant Culture Organizations


Strategic Communication

Know who you are: Be confident about who you are.



- Act according to your moral convictions.

- Use “being different” to construct positive inter-

  group relations.

Be the best: Excel at what you do for the business.




- Be the best, but maintain effective intra-group

  relations by supporting others.

- Broadcast business successes (i.e. “ring your

  own bell” and “tell your own story”).

Deal with Racism and Sexism: Racism and sexism only affect one as one allows it.


- Stay focused on interpersonal outcomes.

- Ignore communication that might be construed

  as differential treatment.


Know who you are.  The executives talked about this strategy in terms of being self-confident about who they are and not changing that, no matter what the situation. The underlying source of that self confidence is acknowledging their "difference" vis a' vis the dominant culture:

First of all, I think you have to always remember that you were Black, you are Black, and you're gonna always be Black.  And so, regardless of what anybody says to you about the playing field being level, I don't buy it.  It's not going to ever be level as long as there are differences in people. I just don't buy that.  And so, why is that important? It is because…you are always mindful of being true to what your sincere beliefs are.  You don't sway to fit the mold, because it doesn't matter.  You can sway to fit the mold, but you still may be excluded from the mold.  So, to me, the first ground rule is just remember who you are and don't, don't, don't move.  If you believe something, you believe it, if you have a moral conviction then have it.

Another key tactic is to use “difference” to foster inter-group cooperation.  One executive stated that interacting with others who have had limited contact with African Americans is an opportunity to use her "difference" constructively:

I am so clear about who I am and whose I am.  I have a real strong belief in God….So when I come to the workplace, I don’t have to act, speak, talk like anybody else.  I can be myself, and I’m proud of that.  Everything that I’ve accomplished has been purely because of who I really am….I’m proud to be a Black woman.  And I’m proud to travel in these circles that, in a lot of cases, I know these people have never even been close to somebody Black.  You know, and to be able to just be there and be so comfortable with them. . . you know, and just love every minute of it, you know.  I just do.

Be the best.  The executives emphasized the importance of excelling at what one does for the business.  The following is one example:

I finished my Masters on Thursday and went away to my first [organizationally sponsored] class on a Sunday evening.  It was a two-week class—like the introductory stuff.  I came back and I had finished about the middle of the pack.  I had just finished four years of graduate school in the evenings and on weekends with a 4.0.  And I was like, “Give me a break—entry-level marketing training?  Bunch of college kids.”  You know.  And they were all hyped up about this thing.  So when I got back, my manager said, “We’re sort of disappointed in you.”  I said, “What do you mean disappointed?”   “Well, we thought you would finish at the top of the class.”  I said, “Oh, is that important?”  I mean, this is like training for job search, this is not . . .this isn’t academic to me.  I’ve finished a Master’s.  I said, “Got it!”  So from then on I was at the top of the class.   I was number one in my large systems, technical, I finished number one in sales.  I said, “If that’s important, what are the rules of the game?”  So once we got that straightened, it was  Oh, OK.  Now.”

Another executive explained how to strategically manage “being the best” while maintaining effective intra-group relations.

You know what my mission is—I’ve got to be the best.  And not to the detriment of my partner, I mean, part of being the best in my mind, was making sure that everybody around you had what they needed if you could give it to them.

Still other executives noted the challenge of being the best and making sure key individuals know about one's successes:

In terms of how hard I work and the ideas I've had that other people got rewarded for, [I've learned] that women don't ring their bell as loudly or as much as I've seen men.  And I think this feeling, well, if I do a good job, somebody's going to recognize it and take care of me. 

Deal with racism and sexism. The executives’ narratives revealed that an important lesson learned through their experiences within dominant culture organizations is that racism and sexism only affects one personally if one allows it. This approach to dealing with racism and sexism ranged from denial of the insidious nature of racism and sexism, to redefining perceived racist and sexist actions by a colleague as that colleague’s problem, not theirs. In either case, the key strategic element is to use goal-oriented communication, staying focused on positive interpersonal or personal outcomes. Two examples demonstrate these strategic responses to racism and sexism:

A newspaper interviewed me about this glass ceiling thing. . .and I told them, obviously, intellectually, there must be something there.  All you’ve got to do is look around any corporation and see who the senior leaders are, and there’s going to be far fewer women than men.  But for me personally, I think it is there when I believe that it’s there.  And I don’t believe that.  So for me, it’s staying focused on the basic things that human beings are really expected to do. And, you know, whether you look in the Bible or wherever you get your inspiration from, there are some basic behaviors that I think, if we want to do the right thing, we’ll all be very honest, we will be dependable, we will care about people. We expect the best from ourselves and others.

            Another tactic is to simply ignore any personal attacks that might be construed as differential treatment, focusing instead on personal outcomes:

Well, you see, I was in medical school [during a time prior to the integration of predominantly White schools].  So I was really feeling very grateful and good to be in medical school [at a predominantly White school].  And I was feeling grateful and good to be able to survive. 

INTERVIWER: You never got the feeling you were being validated.  You know, getting the message, it's okay for you to become a doctor?  Or it's not okay--you don't deserve to be here.  Did you ever get any of those messages?

EXECUTIVE: No, but you know, I probably didn't hear them.  Or see them.  You know, to me it was survival.

Build a support system.  The executives noted the importance of building a support system both inside and outside the organization. One tactic is to build cross-race alliances.  In the following passage one executive discloses what she is teaching her adolescent daughter about using this tactic while participating within dominant culture environments:

She has spent her entire life being the only Black student, the only Black girl in her class from pre-first to [when she attends college].  Well, except for two years.  She’s been in a totally White environment her entire life academically.  And, part of what I didn’t do in law school, I didn’t join study groups. . . well I wasn’t invited to join a study group. . . but I also didn’t know to go and seek one out.  I probably didn’t even know they existed.  Well, she knows they exist, she knows that concept, and she’s in a study group with her classmates right now.

            Another tactic is to build intra-organizational cross-race alliances and same-race alliances outside the organization:

I wasn’t really isolated because I had probably, in high school as well as college, learned how to just deal with people and not to isolate. . . not to say that . . . well, this is a Black or White person I can’t get along with. . . my roommates were White, if you want to look at it from a racial point of view.  And we were the best of friends as suite mates, roommates, etc.  And continued to be up until one of them died about four years ago. But just kind of kept that relationship and contact with each other when we were there and during the summertime, etc.  So, [the predominantly White university] wasn’t bad.  I excelled there. 

Other executives emphasized actively seeking mentors and using networking.  One executive recalled:

I had [White male] mentors who [held positions of power in the community], who were the best [at networking]…I watched how they worked with other people.  How they worked with [nationally prominent politicians from the state] to get grants for the city.  How they talked to people, and what they used—the networking they used to get things done.  And it works.

Contribute to the Organization's Effectiveness.  All 15 of the executives talked about the importance of contributing to the overall effectiveness of the organization.  Indeed, many of the executives see this as a key factor in their ascent into senior management.  One executive reasoned that holding positions in areas that directly affect the company's goals led to her relatively rapid rise through the company's ranks:

I was nominated for an officer’s position [by the CEO].  Most Black females are not going to have that opportunity.  [This company] I believe is a finance-driven company, very much so . . .and I was in the finance area.  And I also started with the company when the company was very small and had interaction then with the chief financial officer.  [T]here were very few Black females, or Black anything here in any kind of professional position at the time that I came, other than [an African American male] who is now senior vice-president in personnel.  So, I got the long tenure…I was in an area of finance where there was a lot of interaction with senior officers and the executive management…so I had the opportunity for exposure and visibility.  And so, I think, as I said, right place, right time.   

Many of the executives recommended that African American women managers within dominant culture organizations should make sure that their contribution is made known to others.  They used phrases such as “ringing your own bell,” tooting your own horn,” and “telling your own story,” to signify that African American women often must take responsibility for making sure their contributions to the organization's effectiveness are recognized.

In summary, the communication themes above represent one current interpretation of leadership development and organizational socialization grounded in the experiences of African American women executives who attained leadership positions within dominant culture organizations. Consistent with the goals of feminist standpoint theory, these themes can be seen as movement toward valuing knowledge produced from African American women’s standpoint. In the next section, I discuss insights gained from this study and offer directions for future research, theory and practice.


The purpose of this research was to examine leadership development and organizational socialization as revealed in the life histories of 15 African American women who have attained upper level executive positions within large, hierarchical, predominantly White organizations in the United States (dominant culture organizations). Past research in these areas has focused almost exclusively on the lives of middle-class White men and women and assumed generalized to all populations. The present research employed feminist standpoint epistemology, placing Black women at the center of analysis to reveal specific, qualitative details about leadership development and organizational socialization from their standpoints. Following is a discussion of insights gained from this study relative to the ways African American women learn leadership and advance within dominant culture organizations.

Learning Leadership

This research generated key insights about the ways in which African American girls and women learn leadership within the context of race, gender, and class oppression. One insight gained from this study is that Anglo-defined leadership development messages that emphasize strong identity and high achievement are interpreted as survival in the context of African American women’s lives. Similar to studies focusing on the lives of middle-class White men, the most influential messages in this study related to encouragement from parents and other significant adults to strive for achievement (Bass, 1990; Burns, 1978; Gibbons, 1986; Kotter, 1982). Also, similar to studies based on White women’s leadership development, the participants of this study were encouraged to develop a strong sense of self as women (see Helgesen, 1990). However, messages of achievement and identity described by the women in this study were framed as tools for surviving within the dominant culture. That is, what was important was their achievement and identity as Black women. This survival frame was evident for women regardless of the socioeconomic status of their family of origin.  This reinforces the notion that within the interlocking systems of race, gender, and class oppression, the influence of race and gender may sometimes overshadow class as a salient factor (Essed, 1994; Slevin & Wingrove, 1998).

A second insight gained from this study relates to early communication influences on later leadership behavior. Consistent with a life span explanation of leadership development (Avolio & Gibbons, 1988), the results of this study demonstrate that communication during early childhood and adolescence serves to contextualize present behavior. From the standpoints of the women in this study, there were two important communicative influences on their development as leaders,  (a) positive messages from influential adults during childhood and adolescence; and (b) their own responses to negative achievement messages from high school counselors and teachers. First, positive messages received during their formative years related to identity development (self-confidence, responsibility, and integrity), were especially influential in shaping the women’s current leadership approach. Consistently, the women used phrases such as “I have to be me” and “I know who I am” as key interpretations for their current leadership behavior.  Such statements resonate with the messages they received during childhood and adolescence that focused on developing self-confidence. These phrases also resonate with the executives’ descriptions of what they learned about responsibility and integrity—to take charge when necessary, and to be there when others need you.

Several women reported that an important influence on their leadership development was their ability to resist the negative achievement messages they encountered in their high school years and early career development. The messages these executives received during their formative years, focusing on achievement, identity, and managing race relations, seemed to prepare them for the negative messages of achievement they received in high school and college, and during the early years of their careers.  In each of the seven accounts in which an executive was told by a college professor or manager that she could not achieve some professional or career-related goal, her response was to prove the person wrong by striving to achieve the goal.  The executives attributed their resolve and inner strength to the encouragement from their parents and other significant adults. Their own testing of that resolve and inner strength, however, reinforced their confidence as leaders.

Organizational Socialization: Advancing within Dominant Culture Institutions

This research provides insights about African American women’s organizational socialization. First, this study reinforces the view that for African American women and other marginalized groups, organizational socialization is a process in which persons resist organizational attempts at reproducing and sustaining their status as outsiders (Allen, 1996, 2000; Bullis & Stout, 2000; Clair, 1996; Smith & Turner, 1995). Indeed, the notion of resistance is a constant underlying theme in their communication environments during every stage of their development as organizational leaders.  In the early stages they received messages from their parents and other significant adults to remain self-defined, encouraging them to resist attempts by others to control them. In later stages, as they continued in their vocational socialization, the women themselves enacted resistance strategies to fight discourses of outsider status and to remain self-defined in school and work contexts.

The emphasis on resistance revealed in the women’s narratives is consistent with other Black feminist standpoint research, which emphasizes a particular expression of resistance to power from African American women’s location in systems of power relations (Collins, 1990; hooks, 1990; Hull, et al., 1982; Lorde, 1984). For example, hooks (1990) describes strategies for Black women’s resistance which are evident in the present study: (a) breaking silence against oppression, (b) developing reflexive speech through dialogues among individual women, and (c) confronting or talking back to elite discourses.

A second insight about organizational socialization gained from this study relates to co-cultural communication (Orbe, 1998a, 1998b). Among the women in this study, there was a common emphasis on remaining self-defined as they advanced within their organization.  However, there was diversity in the women’s approaches to interacting within dominant culture organizations as they were striving to remain self-defined.  This diversity reflects the particular communication orientation that can be traced to influential messages about race relations that the women received during childhood. The women’s co-cultural orientation practices ranged from nonassertive separation (e.g., avoiding) to aggressive accommodation and nonassertive assimilation (confronting) (Orbe, 1998). The diversity in the women’s approaches to interacting within dominant culture organizations underscores the importance of acknowledging different standpoints among individual women (Allen, 2000).

Directions for Future Research, Theory, and Practice

 As with any investigation, this one has some limitations that should be addressed in future investigations. First, because retrospective interviews were used, the results may suffer from self-report biases such as social desirability and recall biases. The executives may have been inclined to give socially desirable responses during the retrospective accounts of their leadership socialization and current leadership ability. To address this limitation in the present study, the executives were asked for concrete examples to support their assertions, especially when the claims were general in nature. Future research should employ longitudinal research designs, beginning with interviews and observations of African American adolescent girls and following them throughout their career (see Farmer & Associates, 1997).

Another limitation relates to the generalizability of the data. This study focused on a subset of a relatively small population of organizational leaders within dominant culture organizations and, therefore, the results should not be generalized to the entire population of such leaders. Rather these results should be viewed similarly to Mintzberg’s (1973) study of five executive men and Helgesen’s (1990) study of four executive women. In both these studies, as in the present one, the intent was to broaden our understanding of leadership by listening closely to the experiences of leaders in situ. Future research should use larger sample sizes to explore the ideas generated in this study.

Despite its limitations, the findings of this study have implications for future research, theory, and practice in the areas of leadership development and organizational socialization. First, research is needed to document the communicative contexts of contemporary African American girls’ leadership development and career socialization. The potential for success occurs within a complex social, cultural, and political environment that, by many important measures, is becoming increasingly difficult for African American girls to navigate (Holcomb-McCoy & Moore-Thomas, 2001; Twine, 2000). African American adolescent girls, particularly those living in impoverished neighborhoods with high crime rates, are at risk for low academic achievement, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and becoming victims of violence (Arnold, 1994). Furthermore, girls across socioeconomic statuses are contending with racialized images in the press and popular media of African American women as welfare queens and video divas, juxtaposed with inaccessible images of the overachieving Black lady and the good White woman (Duke, 2002; Fordham, 1993). Current research suggests that, unlike the experiences of African American women who came of age in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, contemporary African American girls often do not have the social support and opportunities to develop a strong identity and sense of agency needed for professional success (Holcomb-McCoy & Moore-Thomas, 2001).

Based on the findings of the present study, and given the contemporary context of cultural and political change, future research is needed to investigate three areas relative to African American girls’ leadership development. First, researchers should explore the sources of salient messages, including co-cultural communication practices that help to empower African American girls and foster their leadership development. Second, research is needed to investigate the nature and function of community networks available to provide positive support for African American girls.  Finally, researchers should investigate African American girls’ self-defined strategies for resistance.

The findings of this study have implications for research on organizational socialization practices.  As noted, the findings indicate that reproducing and sustaining “outsider status” among certain groups, including African American women, is a function of organizational socialization practices. However, these practices are often subtle, and embedded in everyday interactions within dominant culture organizations (see Parker, 2002, in press). Research is needed to make these practices visible, and to envision socialization practices that empower all organizational members. One approach is to research “best communication practices” as revealed in organizations that recruit and maintain traditionally excluded groups.


This research examined leadership development and organizational socialization as revealed in the life histories of 15 African American women who have attained upper level executive positions within dominant culture U.S. organizations. A standpoint feminist framework was used to call attention to the ways marginalized groups, such as African American girls and women, resist the discourses and institutional arrangements that reproduce “outsider status” in the socialization process.  Hopefully this study will generate research that further illuminates the resistance process and identifies ways to transform oppressive organizational systems into generative systems that enable the growth and development of future leaders.


1. The author wishes to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editor for their insightful comments on drafts of this manuscript. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2001 meeting of the National Communication Association, Atlanta, GA.

2. I use the terms “African American” and “Black” interchangeably in this article.

3. Although African American women are ascending into the professional-managerial class at a faster rate than Black men, the median income for African American men remains higher than that of African American women (Browne, 1999).  Indeed, as a group, African American women, along with Latinas and Native American women, continue to be most at risk for poverty and low wages in the U.S. labor market (Browne, 1999). Also, African American women face more restricted opportunities for upward mobility than their White female counterparts (Bell & Nkomo, 2001).

4. I use the terms “Anglo,” Anglo American,” and “White” interchangeably in this article

5. Cox, (1993) identifies a fourth possible acculturation outcome, deculturation, which occurs when an individual severs ties with his or her original sociocultural group but has not been successful in forming new ties with the dominant culture or has been rejected by it (Cox, 1993, p. 167).

6. See Orbe (1998) for a complete explication of the nine orientations and their associated communication practices.

Appendix:  Interview Protocol

Let's start by discussing the life experiences that most influenced your leadership development beginning with your early childhood.

1.         First, tell me about your family.

a)         What was the size and composition of your family?

-Where were you in the birth order?

b)         Tell me about your mother and father (or other person (s) that reared you).

-What were their roles within your family?

-What were/are their occupations?

-What was/is their educational background?

c)         Are there any parental behaviors or attitudes that you admired as a child and that you have come to reflect or emulate as an adult?  Please describe them?

d)         What were some of the important messages that you received from your parents that you feel helped to shape who you are today?

2.         What other adults, other than your parents, influenced you during your childhood and early adolescence?

a)         behaviors or attitudes that you have come to reflect or emulate?

b)         important messages that you feel helped to shape who you are today?

3.         Focusing on the high school and college years, describe any critical incidents, significant experiences, persons or events that influenced your leadership development.

a)         What did you learn about leadership from these influences?

b)         When did you recognize yourself as a leader?

4.         Now, let's discuss your career track

a)         What specific obstacles did you have to overcome/deal with as you progressed through your career?

b)         What instances of discrimination (differential treatment) have you encountered as you progressed in your career?

1)         What happened?  Where did it occur?  Who was involved?

2)         Why do you think this incident occurred?

3)         What was your response?

4)         In retrospect, how would you have handled the incident differently, if at all?

c)         What lessons did you learn as a result of your experiences as you progressed through your career?

1)         What would you do differently?

5.         As you reflect on your life experiences, what do you consider the most significant influences on your development as a leader?


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