Corporate Conundrum: Where Are The Black Female CEOs?

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Workplace diversity programs are a great concept in theory. But too often, African-American women are left out of the mix when it comes to developing  new corporate leadership. Look around and you will now see more and more women leading major companies — from Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! to HP’s Meg Whitman to Time Inc.’s Laura Lang — but strikingly absent are African Americans.  Some black men have reached the top as well — Kenneth Chenault, who has been the CEO of AMEX (American Express) since 2001; Richard Parsons, a former chairman of Citigroup and the former Chairman and CEO of Time Warner; and Don Thompson, the new president and CEO of McDonald’s, among others. There is but one black woman who head a Fortune 500 company: Ursula Burns of Xerox.

“Most Fortune 100 companies have employee affinity groups to foster leadership development. Over the years, partly because of their high numbers, white women have tended to dominate the women’s groups, while men have tended to dominate the Latino, Asian, or African-American groups. Women of color have seldom been able to rise in either group,” says Susan E. Reed, author of the award-winning book, The Diversity Index: The Alarming Truth About Diversity in Corporate America…and What Can Be Done About It.

One reason black women are missing is that they aren’t in corporate settings as much, notes Reed. “Some studies have shown that college-educated African-American women tend to choose occupations that focus on communities, such as social work or governmental jobs instead of business,” she tells us. “Secondly, the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements raised consciousness about ‘people of color’ and ‘women.’ These categories were replicated in corporate affinity groups… For a Latina woman to fit into the boxes, she has to join two affinity groups at work, the women’s group and the Latino group. She has to put in twice the amount of time and feel like a minority in each setting.”

And the exclusion of African-American women, adds diversity and inclusion expert Lenora Billings-Harris, might just be an oversight. “I do believe that it is frequently unintentional that women of color are left out of that loop. Also, the  leaders who on the surface want women of color [to be included] are not aware of the micro messages they send to women of color — that women of color are not leadership material or that they don’t ‘fit,’ which essentially translates that you are not quite enough like us,” she says. “The leaders, presumably male leaders and most presumably white male leaders need to be willing to lean into their discomfort around interacting with women of color and to interact without judgement. To listen more and to ask questions in order to develop real professional relationships with women of color not only in their corporations but outside as well. ”  Billings-Harris also says black woman too must interact more and give feedback to their bosses about being excluded.

Changing the Workplace Culture

Even though the obstacles are there and the hurdles are hard to overcome, in order to make this change women of color have to be more persistent. “The first challenge is to stay in the corporate game. For at least the past 25 years, more African-American women have graduated with college degrees in business than African-American men have.  But black men have developed their business majors into their careers more than black women have,” Reed notes. She suggests that African-American women create their own affinity groups. “You should consider what specific awareness, positive change or increased business that you all could bring to the company that is not being contributed through the existing groups. If the women long for greater accomplishments [and] recognition, ask each other what needs to get done in the form of acquiring skills, leadership experience or notifying management in order to get the promotions,” she offers.

Billings-Harris agrees the onus is not only on the company, but African-American women executives as well. “It is time for us to go beyond the numbers and counting heads but rather get to a point to where the heads count. So women of color can help in this regard by being courageous enough to speak up and have those conversations with the leaders throughout their organization,” she says in an interview. “My point is rather than being negatively critical, come to the table with suggestions and an open ear. If both sides are willing to listen and to teach each other how they can interact more effectively, then I think ultimately we all will win.”

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