Negotiating the Labyrinth: Work and Career Experiences of Racial Minorities

There is a considerable amount of work, both in the academic literature and popular press, examining the under-representation of various groups in leadership positions. This includes analyses of how women, racial minorities, LGBT individuals, and persons with disabilities, among others, experience work and the paths they take to obtaining leadership positions. There are also a number of reports on the issue, including those from Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, Richard Lapchick, and the NCAA, among others. 

In a recent study, Madeline Wyatt and Jo Silvester examined this very issue by adopting the approach of people negotiating a labyrinth.* In this case, the path to a desired destination is not simple or direct; instead, one must negotiate the contours and potential obstacles lying ahead of them. There are also multiple ways to get to a given destination. As such, "each individual's experience of navigating the complex paths will be unique because it reflects their efforts to understand and deal with the dead-ends they encounter, by back-tracking and trying different routes." (As an aside, David Bowie with his great hairdo always comes to mind when I think of a labyrinth).

They interviewed 40 senior managers, women and men, 20 of whom identified as racial minority and 20 of whom identified as White. The participants completed a career timeline, which allowed the researchers to then specifically focus on idiosyncratic events and experiences during the interview process. 

Both groups of participants identified four common themes: visibility, networks, development, and line manager support. However, the way they experienced and negotiated these themes varied considerably. Let's consider networking as an example. Both Whites and racial minorities pointed to the importance of networks and the role informal connections played in promotions and the candidates that were considered for a position. For Whites, though, networks allowed for self-promotion. On the other hand, racial minorities discussed the difficulty in accessing networks  and the role formal networks played in their careers. In this case, some of the racial minority managers took part in forums and other programs designed to increase their visibility and networking, but by doing so, they also faced backlash from Whites.

As another example, managers of color and Whites both spoke of the importance of developmental activities, but the access to them and benefits accrued differed between the groups. Similar patterns emerged for the final two themes (line manager support and visibility), too. 

In reflecting on the findings, the authors wrote: "History suggests that designers of labyrinths are often sworn to secrecy. Yet, there are also examples...where individuals have been given secret information about how to navigate the twists and turns they are likely to encounter on their journey. While [racial minority] managers may have to rely on explicit knowledge about formalized paths to reach their goal, it seems that [W]hite managers are more likely to be passed 'a golden thread' to help guide them through informal channels, allowing them to progress more quickly to leadership roles."

I find the metaphor to be useful in conceptualizing the different work experiences and career patterns of racial minorities and Whites. And, as long as the labyrinth is maintained, and differential knowledge of its paths exist, discrimination, prejudice, and differential access to leadership roles will remain. 

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* Wyatt, M., & Silvester, J. (2015). Reflections on the labyrinth: Investigating black and minority ethnic leaders' career experiences. Human Relations, 68, 1243-1269.