What we all feared just happened when Claudine Gay, the first Black president of Harvard University, announced that she was stepping down after only six months on the job—the shortest stint ever for the university’s president position.
The latest news about Claudine Gay admittedly dredged up some all too familiar and saddening experiences for me and many executives like me when I heard the news. While writing this, I just saw a news report about the inauguration of the first female mayor of Philadelphia, Cherelle Parker, who is only the fifth Black woman to run one of America’s largest cities. They highlighted parts of her speech about shattering the glass ceiling and opening up opportunities for more women and POCs to walk through.
Is that really the case?
We felt the same hope, promise, and determination when we first heard of Dr. Gay’s appointment. And yet, six months later, here we are. Her interim replacement looks and sounds like nothing of that promise or the person who just vacated that position.
This is not about Dr. Gay’s congressional testimony, and let’s set aside the plagiarism allegations for now. We continue to witness and experience this trend for people of color. When we finally think that we’ve made it and there is finally a path for distributive power, another (one) bites the dust, or another door closes and closes tightly with little expectation for the change we hoped to see. The quote by David Thomas, president of Morehouse College, that “… (this situation) does put in relief the vulnerability of Black female leaders. When they do ascend to these positions — there will be people who come after them” is real and jarring.
The evidence is quite clear that we have work to do not only with diversifying the nursing profession but with diversifying nursing leadership even more. According to a study by the National Center For Education Statistics, Black women have been obtaining degrees at a consistently high rate for the past 11 years, obtaining more associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. And yet, a health affairs study found that “historical legacies of sexism and racism, dating back to the division of care work in slavery and domestic service,” even though Black women are more overrepresented than any other demographic group in healthcare.
Nurses of color represent fewer than 20% of U.S. leadership roles in nursing administration, education, and professional organizations. A 2023 scoping review revealed that Black nurse leaders face obstacles and challenges with entering into or remaining in leadership roles, along with limited and inadequate research on Black nurses in leadership roles.
For many of us who have supposedly “made it” as nurse leaders of color, the fight to hold on has a weathering effect. The path is long and winding, with a constant need to justify your position with the stress of constantly overperforming, outworking, outproducing, and over-justifying why you belong in your role. I vividly recall my first experience of this when, with my first major promotion to an executive role, a position I was offered and didn’t even apply for.
After I received the unexpected and exciting news of my promotion, I was told by my then-boss, the CNO, that one of the surgeons (who was white) felt that he still needed to be convinced that I was qualified (I was overqualified with dual master’s degrees). She insisted that I stop by his office to meet with him, only to be subjected to degradation and veiled threats that he was watching me and he had the power to bring me down if I didn’t prove I was worthy of the role. My joy of being promoted suddenly turned into fear. I adopted the familiar methodology of being the first in and last to leave during my entire career there as I struggled, which also impacted my family and finances. Even that was not enough, or I didn’t know what enough was. It was an unclear and constantly moving target.
Back to the shattered glass analogy. This continuing trend is evidence that the shards of glass from glass ceilings that are figuratively shattered when people of color are appointed to these positions are never thoroughly picked or cleaned up. The shards remain littered in paths for people of color in these leadership positions to step over and avoid cutting themselves carefully. We’ve all literally seen the effects of broken glass, and shards tend to spread far, go wide, and hide. Even the most meticulous cleaning reveals a piece of glass days, months, or weeks later, which may have been missed, causing a cut or becoming embedded in limbs, causing harm when and where you least expect it. These injuries can also cause permanent damage – in this case, spirit murder.
When are we enough? Is it ever enough? And, once we get into these prized positions and the celebratory “being the first” honeymoon phases are over, what is enough? For all the Claudine Gays in nursing and other careers that have been loved, lifted, and are now lost or are fighting to hold on, it’s tough to play the game when you don’t know the rules when they are unwritten and constantly changing. A friend of mine sent me a quote that we continuously have to be “twice as good to get half as far” as some of our counterparts. This is not the way we wanted to start the year 2024.