When it comes to perceptions of career success for African-American men, the old saying about how “it’s not what you know but who you know” is often seen as an undisputed truth.
However, when it comes to getting a job promotion or better pay, the strongest factor really is the “what” and not the “who.” And being light-skinned or dark-skinned or from a rich or poor family doesn’t determine career advancement, but being married to a woman who doesn’t work makes a big difference.
Such are just a few of the findings of a new University of Georgia study that bills itself as being “one step toward better understanding career success of African-American men.”
“The notion of ‘it’s what you know’ tends to hold true for this underrepresented population, and while African-American men may experience unique barriers and institutional discrimination/racism, it seems that those who have more human capital fare better in terms of objective indicators of career success such as salary and promotions,” states the study, which appeared in the Journal of Vocational Behavior earlier this year.
“This is important given the African-American general perception that decisions are sometimes based on subjective criteria rather than actual knowledge, skills and abilities.”
The authors of the study—titled “Evaluating Career Success of African-American Males: It’s What You Know and Who You Are that Matters” and part of a larger ongoing study that explores factors that affect career success among African-American men—say the study’s findings have important implications for African-American men as well as those who hire and fire.
Study co-author C. Douglas Johnson, an associate professor of management at Georgia Gwinnett College, said he set out to do the study to challenge some of the long-held beliefs among African-Americans that influence the way African-Americans view what it takes to get ahead on the job.
“A large part of wanting to do the study is to try to understand those beliefs that exist and whether those still hold true today or if they ever held true, or if they’re kind of an urban myth,” Johnson said in an interview with Diverse.
“It’s important that we do empirical research to either refute those stereotypes or confirm them,” Johnson said. “And when (studies) don’t confirm those beliefs, that we try to get that not only in academic journals, but the general population such that they can start to see that, if you put forth the effort and you are motivated to achieve, regardless of your background, personality, family or where you start, you can still achieve if you’re willing to put forth the effort.”
Johnson said the “who” factor may still hold relevance in some areas of employment, but not when it comes to pay and promotions over time.
“From a perception standpoint, who you know can seem to make a difference,” Johnson said. “But over the longer term, the ‘who’ you know is not as important when you’re looking at measures of traditional career success.”
For the study, Johnson and Lillian T. Eby, a professor in the Industrial-Organizational Psychology Program in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, relied on survey responses from 247 Black men who are alumni members of a predominantly Black fraternity. The fraternity was not identified explicitly, but the study noted that the fraternity’s primary objective is “achievement.”
Survey participants were asked an array of questions that range from marital status to skin tone, from income level to economic class origin. The skin tone question was included to shine light on the notion that a lighter skin complexion is an advantage for African-American men and that darker skin tones are a disadvantage.
A “correlation matrix” was set up to examine the impact of different variables on career success. Support was largely found for a relationship between career success and human capital, namely, educational attainment, breadth of work history, training and development, and geographical mobility and international experience.
However, no support was found for most variables classified as “social capital,” namely, career enhancing relationships, general managerial career support, professional association, civic and elite club memberships, and prestige of educational institutions attended. And only modest support was found for one social capital variable referred to as “informal network.”
While previous research has shown that social capital has had a positive relationship with career success, “this was not the case with this sample of African-American men”—a finding that the study states is aligned with a recent assertion in academia that “Blacks do not yield the same payoffs from social capital connections as do Whites.”
“This could be due to the reciprocal nature that some expect to garner from such relationships, and, if majority group members do not see value in such an exchange, then African-Americans are likely to be excluded or receive less information,” the study states. “Further, those with whom they are in contact with may not have valuable information or other resources to share.”
The study also states that social capital’s lack of influence in career success for Black men “may be due to having less access to mentors and sponsors with sufficient power and/or influence to positively affect their careers.”
The study also recommends exploring whether industry type affects the relationship between career enhancing relationships and career success.
Beyond questions of social versus human capital, the study also found that African-American men who were “older, married, and had a spouse who did not work achieved greater career success,” and “neither (socioeconomic) origins nor skin tone had a significant relationship with career success.”
“This may suggest that progress is being made in terms of a person’s color not affecting career outcomes, and that a person can reach career success regardless of their SES [socioeconomic] origins,” the study states.
As for the impact of being married, Johnson said, “The belief is, if you’re married, it is seen as a signal that you’re more stable and that you’re more dependable, because you are defying some of the stereotypes that exist, especially with African-American males, that we don’t marry, we don’t take care of our responsibility. So those who bought into that belief and then they see someone who is not meeting that stereotype that provides them with some level of comfort.”
Still, the study has its limitations, Johnson said, chief among them that the cohort studied were all members of a fraternity and thus college-educated.
“One of the things (the study) suggests is career success is complex, and we can’t just base our beliefs on samples of one particular type,” Johnson said. “While this sample was of college-educated African-American men, you need to do it with other persons of ethnic backgrounds and those who are not college-educated, because you may find some different results rather than assuming that we can generalize across samples and all types, to ensure that we have solid information, as we’re trying to provide guidance for those who are up and coming and trying to achieve career success.”