In my late 20’s, working as a school leader, I had two surgeries to remove benign tumors despite having an impeccable health record and no family history of tumors. Over my entire career in leadership, I have watched other Black women — leaders I’ve supported, peers, mentors, clients, and friends — struggle with serious physical and mental health challenges, including anxiety, hair loss, eating disorders, depression, and auto-immune diseases.
With the spotlight on issues faced by Black employees during this new racial reckoning, it’s important to elevate Black Superwoman Syndrome. Coined by Dr. Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombe, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Nursing, the phenomenon includes five major behaviors demonstrated by Black women leaders: obligation to manifest strength, obligation to suppress emotions, resistance to being vulnerable or dependent, determination to succeed despite significantly limited resources, and an obligation to help others.
This Superwoman-like behavior can be both an asset and a necessary liability to ascend in predominantly white-led workplaces. The relentless drive to dispel negative stereotypes of Black women as “lazy” or “incompetent” has enabled many Black women to thrive in leadership in these spaces. However, once in these leadership roles, Black women often find themselves to be one of the few or only people of color at decision-making tables, which may continue to feed the syndrome.
The pressure on Black women to juggle and be perfect at all things because of unequal expectations at the intersection of race and gender-based oppression takes a physical and emotional toll. Amani M. Allen (formerly Nuru-Jeter) of the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health describes the toll as “the slow deterioration of our bodies.”
Many articles on this topic list tips Black women can follow to “put down their capes,” but this syndrome is not Black women’s sole responsibility to address. Leaders of organizations can identify the “Superwomen” hiding in plain sight and create the conditions that better support them.
Here are ways I’ve seen this syndrome manifest itself:
Obligation to manifest strength
There is an expectation to put on a “strong face” even when Black female leaders don’t want to or have the energy to do so. To do otherwise could cause others to question their capabilities. This looks like powering through the day without breaking a sweat; handling crisis after crisis and meeting after meeting; and solving every problem that walks through the door — alone — because that is the expectation many have of them.
Obligation to suppress emotions
Black female leaders may walk on eggshells and internalize their feelings to avoid seeming “weak” or on the other end, being typecast as an “angry black woman.” When Black women in leadership want to cry or display anger, they may remain extremely calm or stay silent because they have shut down or are struggling to find language to frame their disagreement in “palatable” ways.
Resistance to being vulnerable or dependent
These Superwomen may reject help from our teams or managers to avoid the perception that they are incapable of handling a situation. Further, they may not trust others to provide help because their shortcomings can have negative consequences on them. This looks like not delegating or not asking for help until it’s too late.
Determination to succeed despite limited resources
What employer doesn’t want their employees to do more with less? But what this actually refers to is when Black female leaders are given unfairly challenging tasks compared to their non-Black peers and inadequate resources to get the job accomplished. And then they are held to higher expectations for performance on those tasks.
Obligation to help others
Many Black female leaders approach their work with a mission mindset and orientation of uplifting their communities through their work. As a result, many grapple with real guilt over letting those in their circles down should they say “no” or prioritize their own needs. Many Superwomen also rarely take days off (or work on their days off) and don’t prioritize doctor appointments or feel guilty when they do.
While there are a number of actions Black female leaders can take to manage those five behaviors, I also want to offer four concrete actions organizations can take to better support these leaders and combat this syndrome:
Confront organizational biases against Black female leaders
Organizational leaders should reflect on whether they are feeding into unfair narratives of their Black female leaders being able to “take on more” or expecting these women to repeatedly prove their capabilities in ways that are not expected of their non-Black counterparts.
Organizational leaders need to reckon with the reality that they may have cultivated a culture where it’s uncomfortable for Black women to express emotions other than contentedness in the name of “professionalism.” How do leaders deal with push back from Black female leaders? When Black female leaders have been frustrated or disappointed with a decision, are they labeled as not being a team player? When Black female leaders are silent in meetings, are they avoided, criticized, or labeled as “unapproachable”?
Organizational leaders can nurture a culture of productive two-way dialogue by asking questions and genuinely listening.
Ensure Black female leaders have adequate resources to get their jobs done
Organizational leaders should stop passively asking Black female leaders if they need help and instead proactively problem-solve or help them navigate especially tough loads. If Black women are being asked to take on especially challenging situations, they should also be given more time to achieve gains or differentiated goals, preference in selecting their team or additional talent capacity, release from non-essential meetings, opportunities for additional professional development, and/or an increased budget.
Humanize Black female leaders
Managers of Black female leaders should take the time to build a genuine and trusting relationship. They should also avoid labeling Black women as “strong,” “resilient,” or other such words. They may be all of these things, but these messages reinforce the idea of being a superhero instead of a human with vulnerabilities.
This also includes being mindful of not piling on lots of asks of Black female leaders because of their reputation of being able to manage it all. This does not mean denying them stretch opportunities or undermining their leadership, but it does mean presenting “optional” opportunities as truly optional and not holding back future opportunities should leaders say “no” on one particular occasion.
Promote self-care and connection to other Black female leaders
Organization leaders should work to create a culture of self-care and appreciation. This can look like encouraging leaders to take their days off and positioning competent substitutes to step in so leaders can fully unplug. This can mean having policies that encourage people to use their days off or putting guardrails on email culture.
Connecting Black female leaders to other successful Black women who have navigated similar challenges and with whom they can be vulnerable is another way to combat this syndrome. This can be achieved either through a manager, executive coach, affinity group, or membership to professional groups for Black women.
Organizations benefit greatly from the diverse leadership of Black female leaders, and we need more Black women to stay in, and thrive in, their roles. My hope is that raising this issue generates awareness among organization leaders who can in turn do more to support the Black women navigating the tricky balance of being Black and female in leadership.