A 2015 study found that college-educated Black women often feel like “unicorns” in the workplace — invisible, yet “painfully conspicuous.” Harvard Business Review delves into the reasons behind this paradox.
According to HBR’s report, Black women are 2.8 times as likely than White women to pursue leadership roles such as running a school board, heading a youth initiative, or leading a community organization. Despite throwing their hats in the ring, 46 percent of qualified Black women said their ideas are often ignored.
Karla Martin, Director of Global Strategy at Google, said she had to watch a white male employee get promoted at a consultancy firm she used to work for, even though she led and guided him on “a massive cost-reduction project for a multimillion-dollar client.”
“That partner simply couldn’t remember that it was my leadership, my work — aided of course by the team and that one guy (we’ll call him Jim) — and that I’d been instrumental in hiring Jim and promoting him while I was leading it,” she says. “He’d look me straight in the eye and say, ‘Why don’t we put Jim on this new account? He did such a great job with that cost reduction project.’”
Martin’s story is a recurring narrative HBR researchers found throughout the study: Qualified Black women being overlooked for promotion. Black women are ready to lead. But even after fighting their way up the corporate ladder, 44 percent feel as if they’re stalling in their careers (in comparison to 30 percent of White women).
The study also points out that 49 percent of the interviewed Black women held a graduate degree in comparison to 40 percent of White women.
Katherine Phillips, senior vice dean of Columbia Business School, noted that this “unicorn” phenomenon is especially puzzling since Black female stereotypes should work in their favor.
“Think about ‘male’ leader characteristics: confident, assertive, stand up for what they believe in,” Phillips said. “Now, think about stereotypes of ‘Black female.’ Confident, assertive, stand up for what they believe in.”
But yet, “people won’t open the door for Black women,” Phillips added.
Now that we’ve pointed out the problem, researchers say there is a solution. Only 11 percent of Black women say they have an advocate invested in their success. That’s because leaders, who are predominately white and male, tend to “groom” employees that look like them. A sponsor, HBR says, is instrumental for career mobility.
“I don’t think Black women get real power until we get better representation — and that won’t happen without the support of those who are in power now.” Martin said.