Diversity and Inclusion
Unconscious Bias
Work and Organizations

The perils of black professional labor in the new economy

Professional jobs provide different opportunities in the new, twenty-first century economy than they did in previous decades. In her recent talk co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute and the Sociology Department’s Migration, Race, Ethnicity, and Nation Workshop, Adia Harvey Wingfield, Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington in St. Louis, presented her latest research on how black professional workers experience race in the new economy, and specifically in the health care industry. 

She contended that while the public sector once provided mobility opportunities for black professionals, a contracting and increasingly privatized public sector has dried up many of the routes once used for job security. Furthermore, continued discrimination also limits the opportunities of black professionals, as shown by resumé and audit studies.

At the same time, companies have recognized they must address the needs of an increasingly multiracial workforce and client base. In recent years companies have embraced and touted the importance of diversity, which Wingfield described as the phenomenon “mainstreaming of diversity.” The benefits of supporting and including a diverse workforce have become generally accepted, and many companies even designate formal management roles with the goal of increasing diversity. 


More specifically, in her talk Wingfield elaborated upon how intersections of race and gender shape the tokenization process in the health care sector. Black professionals, she noted, constitute only 4% of doctors, 7% of EMTs and paramedics, and 10% of registered nurses. Through intensive interviews, survey analysis, and field observations, Wingfield analyzed black professionals’ “everyday racial realities,” or their everyday experiences of race in the new economy. 

Wingfield’s research revealed that race and gender operate differently depending on the occupation. For doctors, race is experienced more abstractly. Negative experiences based on race are infrequent, often observed from a distance rather than directly experienced. For example, Oscar, an anesthesiologist, discussed instances where his colleagues shunned patients based on skin color. While he observed his colleagues stereotyping a patient, he didn’t mention experiencing racial prejudice directly. 

For black female doctors, gender is much more salient than race in shaping their work experiences. According to Aisha, “If you’re male, they will call you a doctor. If you’re female, they will call you a nurse. […] But the race doesn’t really matter. It’s the male versus female. That’s more important than the race.” The highly masculinized culture of medicine shapes the way black women doctors see themselves and their careers more saliently and powerfully than race.

In contrast, for black female nurses as compared to black female doctors, race is more visible, salient, and routine in shaping their realities. Everyday racial realities are more personal, routine, and pronounced in interactions with white colleagues for black female nurses. For example, Tanya, a nurse practitioner, described the need to wash her hands in front of patients in order to avoid perceptions of blackness as unclean: “I was always cautious to make sure that I’m washing my hands—they see me washing my hands or sanitizing,” she said. “I go overboard to make sure that they see that I’m clean, so they see that I’m clean and I’m not one of them.”

Racism is more explicit in a story told by Marilee, a registered nurse, to Wingfield, about a white female colleague who was hosting an event and who rebuked Marilee’s inquiry about the event’s details by saying, “The only way you’d come to my house is with a rag on your head—if you were there to clean.” 

Although men in predominantly female professions, such as nursing, typically experience a “glass escalator,” where they receive benefits based on their gender, Wingfield found that black male nurses were often denied these benefits. Instead, they experienced strained relationships with white male supervisors, lacked support from white female colleagues, and did not enjoy higher status with patients based on their gender.

These racial realities exist even in an industry that is actively attempting to diversify. Given the projected labor shortage in the field and the need to serve diverse patients, the medical field has engaged in efforts to enhance and support diversity. However, Wingfield found that these efforts may not align with the day-to-day experiences of black professionals. 

Her research also warns against painting with too broad a brush. While race may not seem as salient as gender in the lives of black women doctors, race profoundly shapes and impacts the everyday lives of black women nurses. Gender and race interact differently depending on occupational status.

Wingfield emphasized that everyday racial realities require better long-term strategies for achieving diversity. By structuring diversity programs to be less about projecting the right message and more about addressing the everyday interactions and challenges people encounter at work, organizations may be able to practice what they preach and live up to their diversity aspirations more effectively.