Networking against Workplace Discrimination: U.S. Professional Organizations, 1939–90

AHA Session 58
Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Superior Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Benton Williams, DePaul University
Benton Williams, DePaul University

Session Abstract

Responding to the “Communities and Networks” theme, this session examines the history of professional networking by U.S. women and African Americans.  The panel includes a paper by Dr. Amy Bix, “Engineering A Female Network: The Society of Women Engineers and Its Community Challenge to Gendered Professional Limits, 1950-1990”; a paper by Dr. Emily Westkaemper, “Adwomen and Feminism: Networking and Mentorship in Advertising Women’s Clubs, 1939-1970”; and a paper by Dr. Will Cooley, “Fighting the Shadow Corporation:  Black Networking in Corporate America, 1964-1980.”  Forging communities in response to their marginalization, women engineers, adwomen, and African-American executives created professional groups that publicized discrimination.  These organizations criticized workplace practices, as well as the educational institutions and the popular media that shaped individuals’ assumptions about their own capabilities and about the capabilities of others. Simultaneously, these communities sought acceptance into the wider networks that had marginalized them, sometimes making strategic concessions for this acceptance.

In seeking to improve career advancement opportunities for themselves and their colleagues, professionals reached out to mainstream organizations, to corporations, to the general public, and to young students.  Publicity campaigns found innovative ways to use trade publications as well as popular culture to broadcast marginalized minorities’ vitality to public life.  Using mass media as a networking strategy allowed workers to address minorities who were under-employed or isolated in their own workplaces, to reshape public perceptions, and to forge collaborations across cities. 

For such efforts, professional groups’ activism should be included in assessments of the civil rights movement and of the decades before and during the emergence of feminism’s “second wave.”  Professional organizations offered complex critiques of racial and gender discrimination in business and in society, and their presence challenges the traditional periodization of twentieth-century activist movements. 

Nevertheless, activists often coupled their criticism of corporate discrimination with strategic concessions.  As Amy Bix considers, Society of Women Engineers members in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington sought to equalize employment opportunities by disproving assumptions that female engineers were unfeminine.  SWE members emphasized marriage and children in their public images. 

Emily Westkaemper considers how women’s advertising societies in cities across the U.S. promoted a business-centered feminism.  Free, public advertising courses increased community recognition of women’s professional capabilities and encouraged consumers to imagine themselves future adwomen.  Alongside instruction on advertising techniques, these courses also encouraged cultivation of physical beauty as a tactic for winning entry into lucrative and challenging ad agency employment.

Will Cooley analyzes the Corporate Few and Concerned Black Executives, groups created in frustration with African Americans’ exclusion from business exchanges that took place at country clubs or in seemingly impenetrable social circles.  Members sought to provide mentorship to new employees, while simultaneously stressing the necessity that African-Americans work hard to meet white employers’ criteria for promotions.  

As reflected in these studies, post-World War II professional groups hoped that demonstrating professional success could help win marginalized workers’ absorption into the privileged ranks of corporate culture, a desire often frustrated by continued discrimination.

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