• by Pam McCollum, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2005

African American Women

Most of the information on African American leadership is situated within larger gender research on women in leadership and management in corporate, public or educational administration (Anzaldúa, 1990; Lather, 1991; Marshall, 1989). African American women began entering the “mainstream” professional ranks in the 1970s, and organizational studies of Black professional women began to appear in the next decade.

While studies on leadership in women of color are small in number, they are complex in that they encompass a range of sociological factors such as gender, racism, sexism and one’s identity (positioning of oneself within the minority and majority cultures) (Walters and Smith, 1999). Early studies (Denton, 1990; Ferguson and King, 1996; King and Ferguson, 1996) focused on issues in Black women leaders’ personal, professional and communal lives. King and Ferguson (2001) found that multiple role expectations between the family and work and between the minority and majority cultures were stressful and sometimes debilitating to the women’s health. Many of these studies were done within the Black feminist framework.

In a study of African American female college presidents, Waring (2003) focused on identity, which was posited to be comprised of four elements: gender, race, ethnicity and class. Twelve college presidents were interviewed using a modified version of a questionnaire developed by Astin and Leland (1991). The authors found that the majority of participants felt the relationship dimension, rather than the task dimension, of leadership was central to good leadership and was the centerpiece of their leadership; two felt they operated in the task dimension of leadership. They reported they often spent time thinking about their presentation of self and their ideas due to their race and gender. There was a feeling that as African Americans they had to work harder to let others know who they are and what they could do. The roles of race were very salient for most of these women, while social class was mentioned infrequently.

Black women’s and White women’s corporate identity was studied by Bell Edmondson and Nkomo (2003) in an eight-year study that compared the career choices and career paths of Black women and White women in corporate America. Survey data from the study showed that not only were the career trajectories different for the two groups, with White women advancing more quickly and earning larger salaries, but also that Black women felt they encountered different types of barriers, such as: (a) stereotypes of incompetence due to race; (b) assimilation or loss of their “Blackness” for others to be comfortable with them; (c) limited access to informal and social networks within their organizations; and (d) a hollow commitment to the advancement of women and minorities within their organizations.

Bloom and Erlandson (2003) studied leadership in three African American principals in urban schools systems using an in-depth naturalistic advocacy approach. Analyses of interviews were used to paint “portraits” of these women as leaders of strength who fervently believed in engaging with the Black community to better urban schools. They all felt that their families, culture and spiritual experiences in their childhood influenced their leadership style by their promotion of education as inalienable right: “The women survived through a committed dependence on family, community and spirituality. Openly acknowledging God and their faith, the women felt empowered to the struggle for social justice” (Ibid, p. 364).

Native American Women

Traditional Native American leadership is distinguished by several characteristics across Native American groups due to its organization around spirituality, which is the organizational frame for leadership. Strong leaders were elders who had a strong spiritual core, displayed care for future generations and honored cultural traditions. Native American leaders led by example rather than authority. Leaders emerged from their contributions to the community and were recognized and selected on their perceived ability to lead. Tribal decision-making was deliberate and considered questions from many perspectives. When making decisions, Native American leaders considered the welfare of the tribe and future generations, which required deliberation, patience and consensus of tribe. Johnson (1982) reported that decision making in the Ojibwe tribe could often take days, weeks or even months before a decision was reached due to importance of the word, which was considered a binding pledge.

Prindeville (2004) studied women officials from 21 Indian nations who hold key policymaking positions in the executive, judicial and legislative branches of their tribes in the Southwest to examine their roles in tribal political leadership. There was great variation in women’s participation in tribal politics. While women of the Navajo, northwestern Shoshone, Pascua Yaqui, and Pyramid Lake Paiute nations have participated in tribal politics for more than 100 years, Pueblo women in Acoma, San Felipe, and Santa Ana cannot participate for religious reasons.

Tribes where women’s participation was allowed showed considerable similarity in leaders’ paths to leadership, policy priorities and political goals in their tribal governments. The leader’s reasons for becoming politically active in rank order were the following: (1) public service ethic; (2) improving the quality of life; (3) civic duty; (4) professionalizing tribal government; (5) political reform; and (6) building tribal unity. Other studies have found Indian women enter politics due to a sense of civic duty as well as the fact that they were socialized to value public service and to improve the well-being of others and their communities (Jaimes Guerrero, 1992; Prindeville and Bretting, 1998).

Native American women emerged in the wider society outside of tribal politics in the 1960s with Red Power movements in which women were prominent activists as well as leaders in community organizations and education. Women worked in greater numbers outside the tribal system than men because they were much more likely to complete high school than males and were better prepared to assume leadership roles (Strauss and Valentino, 2003).

Latina Women

Vásquez (1982) wrote that much of the social science literature on Latinos has been done within a cultural-deficit perspective that assumed Latinos lacked the necessary cultural traits for leadership. Unrecognized is the fact that Latinos have a long history of being activists in the labor movement, organizing for workers’ rights, equitable pay, safe working conditions and fair treatment (Kingsolver, 1989; Marquez, 1995; Segura, 1994; Zavella, 1988).

Recent research documents that Latinas are leaders and participants in all aspects of community politics as agents of social change, seekers of improvements in neighborhood services and mobilizers in Latino election campaigns (de la Garza, Menchaca and DeSipio, 1994).

In reference to Chicanas’ success in political organizing, Pardo (1998) concluded that they are able to transform traditional family networks and cultural resources for action. In a similar vein, Louque (2002) in her study of African American and Hispanic scholars, found that the influence of family and culture were viewed as strengths, rather than cultural deficits when it came to leadership. More recently, others have written about transformative leadership in Latino communities (Rodríguez and Villarreal, 2001; Chahín and Rodríguez, Winter 2005).

To read more about leadership in women of color, read the newly-released, The Ohtli Encuentro – Women of Color Share Pathways to Leadership. This beautiful book presents the voices of 30 African American, Latina and Native American women who share their leadership journeys. IDRA brought together these women leaders to capture, honor and share their inspiring stories of leadership. This book highlights their moving stories. The book also discusses common themes that arose from the women’s interactions in a multicultural, multi-generational gathering designed to explore leadership in women of color.

[©2005, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2005 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]