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Black. Female. Accomplished. Attacked.
As someone who recently left a large law firm to work in the corporate sector, I have to agree. I liked my firm, but I always felt that I had to sink or swim on my own. I didn't get the kind of mentoring that I saw white colleagues, male and female, getting all around me. The firm was actually one of the better ones when it came to diversity, and yet of 600 partners, only five were black women.
A 2007 American Bar Association report titled "Visible Invisibility" describes how black women in the legal profession face the "double burden" of being both black and female, meaning that they enjoy none of the advantages that black men gain from being male, or that white women gain from being white.
Invisibility isn't the only problem. I run an organization dedicated to supporting African American professional women and often run empowerment workshops at various conferences. At a recent such workshop, I asked the participants to list some words that would describe how they believe they're viewed in the workplace and the culture at large. These are the kinds of words that came back: "loud," "angry," "intimidating," "mean," "opinionated," "aggressive," "hard." All painful words. Yet asked to describe themselves, the same women offered gentler terms: "strong," "loving," "dependable," "compassionate."
Where does the disconnect come from? Possibly from the way black women have been forced into roles of strength for decades. "Black women are the original multitaskers of necessity," says one nonprofit executive. "We've perfected it because we've been doing it for so long. But people don't appreciate the skill it requires, and they don't recognize the toll it takes on us as human beings."
For all our success in the professional world, we have paid a significant price in our private and emotional lives. A life of preordained singleness (by chance, not by choice) is fast becoming the plight of alarming numbers of professional black women in America. The fact is that the more money and education a black woman has, the less likely she is to marry and have a family.
Consider these stunning statistics: As of 2007, according to the New York Times, 70 percent of professional black women were unmarried. Black women are five times more likely than white women to be single at age 40. In 2003, Newsweek reported that there are more black women than black men (24 percent to 17 percent) in the professional-managerial class. According to Department of Education statistics cited by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, black women earn 67 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded to blacks, as well as 71 percent of all master's degrees and 65 percent of all doctoral degrees.
With all the challenges facing professional black women today, we hope that Michelle Obama will defy the negative stereotypes about us. And that, now that a strong professional black woman is center stage, she'll bring to light what we already know: that an accomplished black woman can be a loyal and supportive wife and a good mother and still fulfill her own dreams. The fact that her husband clearly adores Michelle is both refreshing and reassuring to many of us who long to find a good man who will love and appreciate us.
Recently, a friend who's a married professional mother of three girls wrote to me: "I think one of the most interesting things about Michelle Obama is that what she and her husband are doing is pretty revolutionary these days -- and I don't mean running for president. For a black man and woman in the U.S. to be happily married, with children, and working as partners to build a life -- let alone a life of service to others -- all while rearing their children together is downright revolutionary."
It's how so many black professional women feel. And our hope is that if Michelle Obama becomes first lady, the revolution will come to us at last.
Sophia A. Nelson is a corporate attorney and president of iask, Inc., an organization for African American professional women.