One graduated cum laude from Princeton University, has a medical degree from Duke University and was a trusted voice on national television during the pandemic.
Another has a law degree from Seton Hall University, was the youngest executive director of the New Jersey Lottery and the first African American to serve as acting state treasurer.
A third has an MBA and a law degree from Washington University and once left a job at Goldman Sachs to help lead the economic development of a majority-Black city.
Dr. Chris Pernell, Michellene Davis and Natasha Rogers all can be described as strong, smart Black women leaders. They also share this description: Executives in New Jersey who have changed top jobs since the start of the pandemic.
Numerous studies have shown the devastating impact the pandemic has had on virtually all working women, a group that had a rapid departure from the workforce for a number of reasons, starting with caretaking duties, which for many increased when working from home combined with virtual schooling.
The impact on women of color was the highest. And, even as the pandemic eases, women of color continue to be absent from the workforce. That’s especially true of women of color serving in top-level positions. It’s a trend ROI-NJ has observed anecdotally.
That such a trend is being discussed highlights the importance and need for company leaders to develop more nuanced approaches to diversity in the workplace — particularly when it comes to women of color.
“It’s really time that employers start to look at the fact that the highest demographic that has left the workforce since COVID has, yes, been women, but Black women in particular,” Davis said.
Davis, who formerly served as executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at RWJBarnabas Health, now serves as CEO of the Virginia-based nonprofit National Medical Fellowships Inc., an organization that aims to increase the number of doctors of color.
Davis, speaking in general terms about the workforce in the country, said she feels that Black women left in droves due to a perceived lack of support at work combined with how the pandemic disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx families.
The mental health burden was harder to bear, she said.
Davis recalls a friend, another Black executive, lost several family members to COVID-19 while her white colleagues knew no one impacted by the virus early on in the pandemic. The lack of empathy for her situation weighed on her mental health, as colleagues flippantly commented that the virus was no big deal.
“That’s why we’re leaving,” she said. “In the middle of COVID, we’re burying family members and going to work and so many of us are just like: ‘I don’t want to live like that. My mental health can no longer take this.’”
Strong Black women.
In 2015, a study published by the American Psychology Association defined the term as a perception that Black women are naturally strong, resilient, self-contained and self-sacrificing.
That perception, which dates back to the days of slavery, plays a role in the horrific history of women’s health care.
About this story
Anjalee Khemlani, who serves as the lead health care writer for Yahoo Finance, was one of the founding members of ROI-NJ — and remains an occasional contributor on issues related to diversity. Here’s her take on this story:
“I began reporting on this late last year after what seemed like yet another story of a talented, strong Black woman leader leaving a position of power after clashing with the organization or white peers in some way.
“It bothered me that I kept hearing the same story over and over again — and that it was feeding into the national trend of Black women among the highest to leave the workforce during the pandemic.
“The fact is, the emotional toll of losing family and community members to COVID-19 at a much higher rate than other races, coming the heels of George Floyd’s death (which the community views as a modern-day lynching), was overwhelming.
“The mental health toll was obvious. These women were walking off the glass cliff. I wanted to find out why.”
James Marion Sims, the “father of modern-day gynecology,” experimented on enslaved women to perfect a post-birth surgical procedure. He did so without using anesthesia. And he conducted multiple surgeries — up to 30 surgeries on one woman — while taking notes about their discomfort and the excruciating pain they went through. He would later use anesthesia on white women for the same procedure.
How this perceived higher tolerance of pain — and a willingness of others to inflict it on them — plays out in society today was the subject of Marita Golden’s 2021 book: “The Strong Black Woman: How a Myth Endangers the Physical and Mental Health of Black Women.”
The book brings the issue to light, but it does not solve the problem.
Rogers said books or studies are nice, but what’s really needed is a better understanding of where strong Black women are coming from — and what they are dealing with.
It’s not always a good place in the workplace.
A report from Lean In, “The State of Black Women in Corporate America,” noted that Black women are less likely to get the support they need to succeed, less likely to interact with senior leaders and more likely to be the “only” — as in the only person that looks like them in a corporate meeting.
In addition, Black women executives are:
- More likely to have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise and to be asked to provide additional evidence of their competence;
- And nearly two and a half times more likely than white women — and more than three times more likely than men — to hear someone in their workplace express surprise about their language skills or other abilities.
The Lean In report made its findings clear:
“In all of Lean In’s research on the state of women at work, we see the same general pattern: Women are having a worse experience than men. Women of color are having a worse experience than white women. And Black women in particular are having the worst experience of all.”
Pernell, who most recently served as the first-ever chief strategic integration and health equity officer at University Hospital in Newark, left late last year for a number of reasons, including after it became clear she was not going to be elevated to replace the outgoing CEO.
During the pandemic, she was a familiar face on cable news, where she shared her story and also criticized President Donald Trump’s administration’s response — the latter earning her a fair amount of backlash in the office.
“My story was very emblematic of what Black and brown families were facing,” she said. “Here was a Black woman physician, a Black woman executive, and I lost my father, and I lost two cousins. My sister was a long COVID survivor. And I enrolled in the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial.”
Speaking out, speaking up
Sometimes, the strength a Black woman exudes when she speaks can be intimidating, which makes it even harder for the women to be themselves.
There is a reason for that, Citi executive Natasha Rogers said.
“In marginalized communities, when you’re unheard, your tone is a little bit louder,” she said. “It doesn’t mean your tone is meant to be mean or dismissive.”
Michellene Davis, a well-known executive around the state, said that being characterized that way may seem flattering, but it actually makes her uncomfortable.
“That’s (a reputation given) by other people,” she said. “I strive to be approachable. So that’s difficult for me. I don’t usually raise my voice. I don’t ever have a need to.”
But, Pernell, who now is working as a senior adviser at Coral Health in New York City and remains an assistant professor at Rutgers University, said she was made to feel like she was “speaking too much truth to power” by others at the hospital.
Despite this, Pernell feels she was one of the luckier ones. Pernell said she had an ally in then-CEO Shereef Elnahal (who was previously the state health commissioner and is now in a leadership role at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs).
“Without him as CEO, without him as protective cover, without him setting an executive strategic and organizational agenda, I probably would have been able to get less done,” she said.
Pernell said she knew what she was up against when she agreed to leave a comfortable job in New York for the role in Newark. Her mother told her.
“My parents are actually children of the Jim Crow South,” she said. “My parents (came) to Newark, like a lot of Black southerners, to flee the tyranny of Jim Crow, but, getting to New Jersey, (they realized) that it is not this place of vast opportunity and equality.”
Pernell said her mother gave her this insight on the difference between the North and South.
“She said, ‘In rural Virginia, I very well know and am aware of who likes me and who doesn’t like me, who wants me in their vicinity or presence and who does not. In New Jersey, you will be invited to dinner and then they will stab you in the back while you’re eating your meal.’”
Even with her eyes wide open, Pernell said she felt she fell prey to the very same power structures she was trying to change. And, when she attempted to confidently address the problems, it backfired, she said.
Black women in leadership are treated differently in ways others cannot understand, Davis said.
“One of the interesting things I’ve witnessed has been Black women executives raising issues to senior leadership, and having senior leadership instead say: ‘We should talk every day. We should spend more time together,’” she said.
“I couldn’t figure out why that was the response … but, then, I realized that it was the way that they treat their wives. Like, when their wives complain, they just pay more attention to them.
Women in business
ROI-NJ celebrated Women’s History Month with the ROI Influencers: Women in Business 2023.
“That’s not the answer when someone says, ‘I feel disenfranchised or marginalized or tokenized.’”
While the pandemic has eased, statistics show the loss of Black women in the workforce has not recovered in direct proportion. And it means that companies and institutions may need to look internally to find ways to make the work environment more tenable.
“Every system and every institution are inherently racist,” she said. “You have to accept that. So, when you’re putting people in a position of power or delegation that other folks are not used to, you’re going to have inherent combativeness.”
The solution is to put in place measures that help mitigate that, Rogers said.
“We think about (diversity & inclusion) as having more Black faces, more Black female faces, more underrepresented faces,” she said. “And that’s one portion of it. But that representation will never yield its strongest power if you don’t put other controls in.”
And let’s not pretend like human resources is going to be any help, Rogers said.
“HR is to protect the company,” she said. “HR is not to protect the employees. Just from a legal perspective. We need to deal with that.”
The same protection structure applies to a diversity, equity & inclusion person or team, too, Rogers said.
“You, as a manager, need to understand the components and the tools to deal with D&I within our own group, and not leave it to someone else to figure out,” she said.
Davis put it this way: “For those who have lived with privilege, equity feels like a hell of a headwind.”
And it isn’t just a white vs. Black issue.
“You can still feel the microaggression, or overt aggressions, from anyone, even people of your own race,” Rogers said. “So, I think the baseline has to be, when we are communicating with one another, we have to look at it from the lens of a woman, particularly a Black woman.”
The glass cliff.
It’s a term you should know if you’re running a business that is focused on, or prides itself on, diversity, equity & inclusion.
It stems from the glass ceiling — the hypothetical barrier women must break through to reach the top.
Read more from ROI-NJ:
The glass cliff is what happens next. It’s a hypothesized phenomenon for women, often women of color, who take on positions of leadership but have experiences that are different from those of their male counterparts. Women are more likely to occupy positions that are precarious and thus have a higher risk of failure — as they often are given these opportunities during times of crisis or are not given the resources and support needed for success.
And, as previously noted, women of color in leadership positions face questions of confidence — and/or competence — from the start.
All of this leads to the creation of the “strong Black women” mentality — an image that has made its way into popular culture.
Camille Parks, Meagan Good’s character in the Amazon Prime series “Harlem,” described it this way in Season 1, Episode 7:
“No one knows exactly who coined the term ‘strong Black woman’ or even exactly when the term originated,” she said. “What we do know is the trope is uniquely American and has been germane from slavery to the present day.
“Being labeled a strong Black woman is a rite of passage. She is resilient, independent and capable.”
But what if she isn’t? What if she is a strong, capable, talented and dependable leader — but just isn’t a superhero?
Rogers feels that the stereotype of a strong Black woman plays a huge role in why women of color move on from jobs.
“People always say, ‘Oh, Black women are so strong,’” she said.
“We’re not all universal problem-solvers. I told my boss one day: ‘Black girl magic is not a real thing. You know that, right?’”