fb-pixelClaudine Gay and the Black Girlboss Paradox - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
About this section

Dissecting policies and practices, offering solutions informed by scholarship and lived experience.

Claudine Gay and the Black Girlboss Paradox

Black women are often hailed as heroes or saviors in times of crisis, yet we face relentless and disproportionate scrutiny.

Dr. Claudine Gay, now ex-President of Harvard University, testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee in Washington, D.C., Dec. 5, 2023.Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

I sighed deeply when I learned last week that Dr. Claudine Gay had resigned as president of Harvard University. It was the kind of sigh one might breathe out after aggravating an old injury and the pain subsides. Her resignation and the cultural maelstrom that preceded it was a reminder of a pain that, while sometimes dulled by success, constantly lies beneath the surface.

Dr. Gay’s December testimony before Congress concerning antisemitism on college campuses sparked widespread outrage, some of which conservative figures like Christopher F. Rufo helped manufacture. Her story reflects a pattern of adversity suffered not merely by Dr. Gay, but also countless other Black women in leadership positions.

I’m one of them. Like Dr. Gay, I am a Black woman who followed what many would consider to be an assured pathway to prosperity. An elite college education led to a career as an upwardly mobile technology executive. I later nurtured the nonprofit I founded, Black Girls CODE, from a grassroots initiative into a globally acclaimed entity, earning both accolades and Presidential commendations. However, a controversy — sparked by a few unfounded complaints concerning my “management style,” ignited increased pressures and intense media scrutiny. Despite an investigation which proved allegations baseless, The board still ultimately dismissed me, severing me from the organization I had passionately built and nurtured for more than ten years.

My story has its specificities, to be sure, but it is hardly unique. We’ve seen the ascendance of women in various fields, in part as a result of DEI efforts launched over the past decade. However, while that progress is unmistakable, it isn’t unfettered — especially for Black women whose representation at these senior leadership roles has lagged significantly in relation to white women and exponentially relative to their male peers, only rising a paltry one percentage point over the same period. Also, after Black women nearly equaled the promotion rate for all men — “likely because of heightened focus across corporate America” during 2020 and 2021, according to an annual study — those rates have since begun to regress, with only 54 Black women promoted for every 100 men during this past year. The pervasive and particular nature of the challenges faced by Black women in leadership positions — stemming from a complex interplay of racial and gender biases — demonstrates that there are complex, systemic, and indisputable inequities that disproportionately affect Black women.

This reality plagues every arena, well beyond academia, and it reflects a broader societal trend of undervaluing Black women’s contributions across all fields.

Too many other Black women holding leadership positions know this. We Black women are simultaneously celebrated as resilient, capable leaders and are often hailed as heroes or saviors in times of crisis. Yet we face relentless and disproportionate scrutiny, underestimation, and marginalization.

As Black women continue grappling with this paradox, despite achieving high levels of success and leadership, they continue to grapple with a disproportionate level of criticism, skepticism, and doubt about their capabilities and achievements. It’s what I’ve begun referring to the dynamic as the Black Girlboss Paradox.

Dr. Gay herself sheds light on this inconsistency with her poignant words in The New York Times which calls for greater skepticism in times of controversy. This sentiment struck a chord with me resonating with my own experience:

“Having now seen how quickly the truth can become a casualty amid controversy, I’d urge a broader caution: At tense moments, every one of us must be more skeptical than ever of the loudest and most extreme voices in our culture, however well organized or well connected they might be.”

Her words illuminate the broader challenges we face, where the truth often becomes the first casualty and the achievements of Black women leaders find their accomplishments diminished. Dr. Gay’s instance is not merely a product of our current zeitgeist, in which political actors like Rufo deliberately sow confusion. Nor is it just an isolated incident. It is a timeless tactic which has perpetuated (and continues to) a doubt and underestimation that awaits Black women leaders, regardless of their chosen profession.

Dr. Gay and I, like many Black women, find our leadership achievements quickly overshadowed by doubt and disbelief, a troubling dynamic where we’re simultaneously elevated as heroes and readily dismissed as villains. This is the essence of the Black Girlboss Paradox – a reality far from anecdotal, deeply woven into the fabric of our professional lives.

Members of the National Action Network hold a protest outside the office of hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman on Jan. 4, 2024, in New York City. Founder and president of the National Action Network Rev. Al Sharpton held a protest outside the office of Ackman, who is a Harvard alum, after the resignation of Claudine Gay as president of the school. Sharpton states that Ackman led campaign against former President Gay "not because of her leadership or credentials but because he felt she was a DEI hire."Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

In corroborating this lived experience, an article in the Nonprofit Quarterly by senior editor Cyndi Suarez presents alarming findings from a 2023 report by the Washington Area Women’s Foundation. The data reveals a distressing trend among Black women leaders in the Washington, D.C. metro area, with a significant majority recognizing an increase in attacks against their leadership in recent years and noting severe impacts on their health and well-being. The researchers interviewed over 32 Black women CEOs and executive directors in the D.C. region and found that “nearly 70% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that Black women’s leadership has been notably under attack in recent years” and “90% of respondents expressed that their occupations have had detrimental effects on their health and well-being, manifesting as chronic stress, fatigue, elevated blood pressure, and impacts on mental health.”

“We have observed a disconcerting pattern where Black women leaders are vacating their roles,” the Foundation reported, “with some leaving the non-profit sector altogether, citing hostility toward their leadership, strain on their health and well-being, unfair job expectations, and limited opportunities for career progression.”

‘It is time that we actively engage in dismantling the systems of power that devalue and marginalize us and replace them with inclusive structures that honor our truth and amplify our voices.’

The Black Girlboss Paradox extends beyond academia and the nonprofit sector, permeating every field where Black women endeavor to lead. Nearly four years ago, author Leta McCollough Seletzky captured the essence of our collective experiences when she wrote, “These days, it’s common to see Black women hailed as society’s heroes — loyal and reliable supporters, passionate advocates, moral sentinels.”

All too often, though, the praise is bound up in a tangle of stinging contradictions, like flowers threaded through barbed wire. We are hyper-visible, yet invisible; powerful, yet insignificant; essential, yet disposable.’ This sentiment is frequently observed within the political and social justice arena, where Black women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, and Stacey Abrams have consistently emerged as societal saviors during the most challenging times, carrying the weight of onerous expectations and tenuous hope. This duality, as experienced by myself, Dr. Gay, and countless others, underscores the resilience required to navigate the pervasive biases and contradictions inherent in our society as Black Girlbosses. Our hyper-visibility is a double-edged sword that makes us targets as much as it does trailblazers.

Actor Taraji P. Henson’s recent revelations during her press tour about being consistently underpaid and undervalued in Hollywood exemplify the pervasive nature of the Black Girlboss Paradox beyond academia and the nonprofit sector. Henson’s experiences highlight a systemic issue where even recognized and accomplished Black actresses face diminished recognition and compensation. These widespread disparities are indicative of a broader societal trend that undervalues and undermines the achievements and contributions of Black women across fields.

Black women who lead remain on an uneven playing field not due to a lack of capability or accomplishment. We can trace that inordinate inspection to deeply ingrained biases and a resistance to our ascent in leadership. Not even the most prominent Black women leaders, those like Vice President Kamala Harris and Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, are immune to this. These are poignant examples of deep-rooted societal fissures that necessitate a systemic overhaul in recognizing and supporting Black women’s leadership.

As I sat last week with this news of Dr. Gay’s resignation, I nursed wounds that I recognized still lingered within me. A collective of Black feminist leaders who made space for each other comforted me as we processed a deep and collective sorrow. It’s been less than a year since my own professional battle ended, and while at times my mind is at ease, my heart and body bear deep scars and pain that still penetrate at a cellular level. Such is grief.

Yet the communion I shared last week with these other Black women transcended the shared space of our grief in the recognition of our shared journeys. In this moment of profound reflection, I understood that this is not the end of our narrative but a key inflection point for radical action and healing. I know well that the path to liberating ourselves from the Black Girlboss Paradox and the intersecting oppressions we face is through conscious resistance and collective awakening. It is time that we actively engage in dismantling the systems of power that devalue and marginalize us and replace them with inclusive structures that honor our truth and amplify our voices.

This is not just a call to action; it is a demand for transformative change. I want to ensure that we define our legacies not by the paradoxes that constrain us but by the boundless potential of our spirit and collective power so that we may create an environment where the next generation of Black Girlbosses can rise without facing the same disproportionate challenges and the Black Girlboss Paradox becomes a historical footnote rather than an enduring reality.

Kimberly Bryant is the founder and CEO of Ascend Ventures and the Black Innovation Lab and founder of Black Girls Code. She is also a Public Voices fellow on Advancing the Rights of Women and Girls with The OpEd Project and Equality Now.