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By Julianne Malveaux

There were about 30 of us seated in a semi-circle on a weekday afternoon, students, faculty, staff, administrators, mostly African-American women, with a couple of White and Latina sisters thrown in. The occasion — an informal chat with women after a talk I gave. But the warmth turned wary when one woman asked why African-American women were so mean to each other.

We talked about it just a bit, discomfited by the question. I retreated into a conversation about two models of women’s leadership — Queen Bee or Nurturer. The Queen Bee, of course, is the woman who gets some psychic pleasure by being the first and the only. She doesn’t give other women a break because no one ever gave her one. She did it the hard way, by golly, and everyone else had better do the same. She forgets that some queens, like Marie Antoinette, end up no one to protect them and their heads on a plate.

In contrast, the Nurturer shares, and takes pleasure in sharing. She doesn’t want to be the only woman in the room — she wants lots of other women to move along with her, to witness her job and help her through troubles, just as she does for them. She doesn’t mind giving a younger sister the lay of the land or a set of strategic tips, because it doesn’t reduce her power, it enhances it. 

The dichotomy between Queen Bee and Nurturer isn’t a Black woman’s thing — it’s a woman’s thing, maybe even a human thing. Thousands of pages in leadership books and management journals have been devoted to the ways that women work, and the fact that some enjoy helping others, while some enjoy standing out as the first and the only. I’ve seen it in corporate America, in academia, in politics, in journalism. Some people can be extraordinarily generous with contacts, tips and ideas, while others hoard their connections.

Still, the conversation in our semicircle was troubling. African-American women represent fewer than 2 percent of all faculty members at institutions of higher education, and are over-represented only among support staff. With our numbers so small, we need allies wherever we can find them. Why can’t we find them among each other?

Fast-forward two days. Another conference, another conversation. This time, the conference focus is women of color in higher education, and the sisterly energy is palpable among African-American, Latina, Asian American and American Indian women. The sisters are warm, generous, and pleasant. But the question comes up again, in gentler terms. Why can’t we all get along? When the basis of the question is broader — women of color, not just African-American women, the answers may be complex since some of us, people of color, have a history of not trusting each other, of letting those in the majority pit us against each other. Still, heads nodded when I spoke of the two models of women’s leadership, Queen Bee or Nurturer. People recognized those women, had been those women and wanted to understand those women.

Essence senior writer Audrey Edwards tackled the issue of sister-hating at work in the magazine’s March issue, noting that bitter and ugly experiences have caused some African-American women to give up, completely, on the myth of sisterhood. Quoting management experts, executive sisters and others, she describes the challenges some corporate sisters face in seeking mentors, road maps and guidance. Much like the academic sisters I’ve been running into, the corporate sisters affirmed two models of women’s leadership, but also noted practical reasons why sisterhood is fractured at work.

Audre Lorde wrote of “sister rage,” the fact that we get madder at us than we do at anyone else, that we treat each other worse that we would others, that even slight offenses, when perpetrated by another sister, seem grounds for greater outrage than similar slights from others. A psychologist or sociologist would have a field day with our behavior and the reasons for it, but from a practical perspective one has to wonder what role this destructive behavior has on our progress as a people.

I have been blessed to be nurtured by wonderful African-American women, both through my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Inc., and in my professional life. Oh, there have been the haters, but I choose not to dwell on them, but instead on the helpers, the folks who have not only opened doors but also escorted me into special places. I’ve also been grateful for the honest folks who have simply said they can’t help — because of a conflict, some ambivalence about me or my work, or for another unstated reason. I prefer that honesty to the Invisible Man tactic of useless tips and futile referrals. And I’ve learned from the haters, been strengthened by them and learned to put them in perspective.

Still, I wonder if the haters wonder what impact they have, especially in higher education. There is an African proverb, “she who teaches must learn.” And when the haters are faculty women, I wonder what they’ve learned and what they see as the future of women of color in higher education.

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