Blog Emerging Gender Topics in Public Administration

Double-Paned Problems: Black Women in Governmental Affairs

By: Schnequa Nicole Diggs

In the August 2011 issue of Essence, Viola Davis said “As Black women, we’re always given these seemingly devastating experiences- experiences that could absolutely break us. But what the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly. What we do as Black women is take the worst situations and create from that point”. As a Black woman in America, the lament found in Davis’s quote is an example of not only the resilience of Black women but how race and gender, as social constructs, combine to create multiple intersecting identities to create situations of double disadvantage, discrimination, and exclusion.

In The Handbook on Gender and Public Administration, Diggs speaks to this point by exploring how intersecting identities of race and gender create unique inequities that limit access to government. She specifically traces the treatment of Black women in governmental affairs and the systematic practice of intersectional invisibility in public administration. As a discipline and a practice, public administration has been slow to acknowledge the need to consider the differential impacts of policy and administrative actions towards race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other social descriptors. This reluctance confirms the invisibility of intersectionality in government which hinders the ability to see how singular perspectives of identity inform the socially constructed world across diverse societies.

Periodically the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) reports workforce trends in the federal government. This data continues to show how government favors male and White identities above all others. Specifically looking at data on senior executive leadership, more than 70 percent of individuals identify as White and male. Controlling for race, White women mirror higher representation (79 percent) in federal leadership when compared to Black women (>12 percent). Black women are also overrepresented in particular segments of government. The disparities among these numbers is an overt example of how intersectional inequities denote where Black women should be. 

One potent argument for the misrepresentation of women in leadership is the structures of marginalization in public workplaces. To help explain, the concept of the “glass ceiling” is generally offered. In this context, the “glass ceiling” is an invisible barrier- in the form of subtle discrimination-  transparent yet strong enough to prevent career advancement for women. Metaphors of “sticky floors” and trap doors” have also been used to explain barriers to career advancement. Yet, for Black women, the barriers limiting access to government are along both racial and gender lines. Centering Whiteness and masculinity present a double discrimination for Black women’s access and opportunities for career growth. Catalyst describes this double-barrier as the “concrete ceiling” to explain the interactive effect of racism and sexism. Diggs extends this thought by offerings yet another alternative to describe how barriers affect the advancement of Black women. She introduces the concept of a “double-paned glass ceiling” suggesting the extra panel of glass gives the same strength of exclusion as concrete but preserves the transparency of the invisible barrier. With this metaphor Black women can see advancement but have to deal with double obstacles to get to it.

At some point we- as public administrators have to take ownership in our part in sustaining and reinforcing systems of racial and gendered inequities. It is great to see growing interest in studying the lived experiences of individuals who identify with multiple intersectional identities. Because by doing so we-as public administrators- draw attention to the necessity of intersectional consciousness to counter the status quo towards true social equity.

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About the author:

Dr. Schnequa N. Diggs is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration in the Department of Public Administration at North Carolina Central University. Dr. Diggs teaches courses in the MPA core curriculum and select electives in the Urban and Regional Planning and Law and Society specializations. Dr. Diggs’ research interests focus on social justice advocacy and crafting effective policies to reduce generational inequities in interrelated policy areas: housing, planning, health, and environmental. Her research interest has been guided by volunteer efforts in grass-roots organizations with a commitment to community development. She has a strong commitment to educate and encourage future public administrators furthering their education in graduate studies. Dr. Diggs currently serves on the board for the Conference of Minority Public Administrators (COMPA) and the Section on Democracy and Social Justice (DSJ). She also serves on the Durham Affordable Housing Implementation Committee in Durham, North Carolina.