Category Archives: Equity

Black Superwoman Syndrome: What It Is and How Organizations Can Better Support Their Black Female Leaders

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.

Tresha Ward, partner at Bellwether Education Partners, quote: "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.”

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.    Continue reading

A Statement on Solidarity

Friends of Bellwether, 

Right now we are searching for the words to describe what we are feeling: anger, frustration, and also a deep sense of urgency that America must be better than this. This most recent crisis comes in the midst of a pandemic that has robbed many children, often the ones who need great schools the most, of one-third of their learning this year. And on top of all that, Black communities are still being called to demand basic human rights that most Americans take as a matter of course. 

The most recent horrific acts of racist violence against Black citizens are heartbreaking and a painful reminder of the endless ways our public institutions and systems fail Black people and communities. What our country is experiencing is neither new nor unexpected. It’s important to be clear: The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota is not a random event that sparked a sudden or inexplicable backlash; it is part of an inexcusable pattern that must stop.

Our systems of education likewise systematically disenfranchise Black children as well as other historically marginalized students. Even as Bellwether works to address these issues, we believe more radical and broad-based change is required to realize the vision of an equitable and just society.  

We are making space for the visceral pain of our Black teammates and colleagues, and standing with communities across the nation, especially those most targeted by racial injustice. We stand with those fighting to address the ways racism destroys individuals and communities. They do not stand alone — it’s incumbent on all Americans, especially white Americans, not only to speak out, but to act.

COVID-19 and Higher Education: A Q&A with Howard Marchitello, Dean of Rutgers University—Camden

Earlier this year most colleges and universities shuttered and moved to virtual classes. Dormitories closed, study abroad programs were canceled, and graduation moved online. 

For many college students, campus closures created significant challenges. Some don’t have personal access to the technology needed to engage in virtual courses. Others don’t have a home to go to or a way to get food outside of their dorm. And after such a significant disruption, some first-generation and lower-income students may not make it back when schools finally reopen.

Howard Marchitello, Dean of Rutgers University—CamdenI recently spoke with Howard Marchitello, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University—Camden to get a sense of how the school is responding to the crisis and meeting students’ needs. (Full disclosure: My colleague Max Marchitello is Dean Marchitello’s son.)

The conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

COVID-19 moved from a potential problem to a full-blown pandemic fairly quickly from mid-February into March. What were your initial reactions and concerns when it became clear that Rutgers would need to close its campuses? 

While we knew the Coronavirus would be an issue, it wasn’t immediately clear how big of an issue it would be. But once we knew we needed to take drastic measures, there was shock and disbelief across the campus, since we have never encountered anything of this magnitude before. Chief among my many worries was how we would keep everybody together, even as we dispersed students and faculty back to their homes. And sending folks home was not as straightforward as it sounds, because some of our residential students don’t have homes to go to. This was a big concern. 

How did you help those students who couldn’t go home once the campus closed? 

We had more than 100 students who had to stay on campus: international students who couldn’t go home and students who didn’t have a home. These students were able to live on campus. And since Camden is a bit of a food desert, we coordinated with the corporation that provides dining services to provide meals. We had a contingent of staff, some from the dining halls and some who had been reassigned from other areas, delivering meals to the residence halls. Nearly half these students have since found housing options in the city or surrounding areas, and the remaining 50 students are still living on our campus. We continue to provide dining services for them, as well as other supports, including our food pantry and our Wellness Center [a comprehensive health center], which has remained open and serving students throughout the semester. Continue reading

Social-Emotional Needs First. Standards and Accountability Later.

Last week we connected with a frustrated school leader who has been valiantly trying to put into place a robust distance learning plan aligned with college readiness standards, all while attending to the mental health and social emotional needs of her students and staff. She shared stories of her high school students going to work to financially support their households, students serving as the primary caregivers to younger siblings, and families navigating housing insecurity and homelessness.

With the sobering reality of these basic needs juxtaposed with the virtual learning mandates coming from her district, feelings of anger, frustration, and hopelessness began to set in:

My kids are dealing with way bigger issues here. Focusing on virtual learning and an instructional plan, without paying attention to the human condition, is just plain wrong.

We know that many teachers have been saying the same thing. Across the country, schools are beginning to come to a shared understanding that pushing academic content at the pre-pandemic pace needs to stop. Instead of focusing so intently on standards and accountability, this moment calls for education leaders to reground in common sense and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s theory posits that basic needs must be met in order for individuals to have capacity to engage in deep cognitive thought and learning. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

We would be remiss not to acknowledge efforts by schools to address food insecurity. But at the same time, we see numerous examples of school systems who desperately continue trying to meet grade level expectations and standards in English Language Arts, Math, and Science at the expense of attending to the social-emotional health and well-being of students.

Many teachers and parents are in a hamster wheel of anxiety about somehow failing their kids if they are “not on pace” — a task the even best of teachers grapple to achieve for all of their students within pre-pandemic circumstances. In a time of stress and anxiety, we are creating more stress and anxiety, which is not conducive to teaching or learning. Continue reading

Media: “What the Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Empathy and Equity in Schools” in Education Post

We’re learning a whole lot of lessons in this public health crisis, but there are some overlooked things to learn about empathy and equity. I wrote a bit about them for Education Post:

The widespread disruptions to our country’s entire education system are a momentary step into the shoes of students who have lived fragile lives for a long time. The difference is that many of us will eventually be able to step out of those shoes and into a world that will plan for and accommodate this big disruption.

Check out the piece for the two empathy “switches” you can flip to turn that feeling into action.