Women from ethnic minorities struggle to secure management posts. Hazel Taylor examines a study of personal experiences.
What's the difference between a block of concrete and a sheet of glass? If you can imagine trying to break through them, and whether you'd know what might be on the other side, you may have some idea of the difference between the experiences of black and white women managers in their climb to senior positions.
Marilyn J Davidson's study makes shocking reading. She analyses the factors ensuring that while white women managers are still under represented at the top across all sectors of employment - 30 per cent of secondary heads and deputies are women but they form 50 per cent of the secondary workforce - black and ethnic minority women are discriminated against much more and hit career barriers sooner.
Davidson has interviewed in depth a sample of those who have made it into management, and relates her findings to the small amount of existing British and American research that identifies ethnicity as a variable in women managers' experience. Her middle managers were better educated on average than white male chief executives. She affirms that it is racism added to sexism which determines their experience.
Women describe how they are affected by token black status, are unsupported, particularly by their managers, are often treated according to perceived cultural stereotypes, and lack access to the mentoring and networks that provide both support and paths to promotion. Pressures at home related to household roles, childcare and family expectations are also compounded by racial issues. The black women's concern about their children's experiences in their British schools is particularly stark.
Davidson's book is sensitively written. She acknowledges her position as a white academic, and continuously restates the complexity of the variables affecting women's career experiences as class, gender and ethnicity influence personal and family life The use of many quotes from her interviewees emphasises the human pain and cost of trying to reach one's potential as a black woman in Britain in the Nineties.
Everyone concerned with management development in education should be familiar with its findings, and black women educators may feel a little less lonely after reading it.
Davidson says that by 2000, the majority of new employees entering the workforce will be women. Ethnic minorities, particularly highly educated black and ethnic minority women, will form a significant section of that workforce. What needs to happen to make their experience a just one?
She emphasises the importance of action at organisational level: policy, recruitment practice, monitoring and target-setting to enable everyone to benefit from the proper management of diversity, and access to training, mentoring schemes, networks and flexible child care.
The women themselves identified the need for national positive action and stronger legislation. They also pointed out that black men's experience can be even worse than their own. They talked about their own skills in taking risks, campaigning, creating their own support and facing the reality of the cost of their career progression.
If black and ethnic minority young women are succeeding in education in spite of racism, why are so few attracted into teaching? Where has the pressure gone from tackling racism in schools to help all children contribute to the creation of a fair society?
What are schools and local authorities doing to ensure their black and ethnic minority women staff get the promotion they deserve?
Race is a variable in social disadvantage: it needs to regain a place high up on the education agenda. Davidson's accessible and thought-provoking book provides compelling evidence of the need.
* Hazel Taylor is an education management consultant