African American Women Face Serious Challenges In Climb Up The Corporate Ladder

iStock_000005052080XSmall_1_.jpgby Anna Collins, Esq. (Portland, Maine)

Following the election of Barack Obama, there has been an increase in discussion of how the election of the first African-American President will impact opportunities for minorities seeking to move into executive positions of leadership. In order to assess such opportunities, The Executive Leadership Council commissioned a poll of 150 executives shortly after the election.

The good news is that 75 percent of the executives believe that having minorities in senior executive positions is particularly important to providing new ideas and to better reflect the diversity of customers. The bad news is that the findings also demonstrate that African-American women face serious challenges in their climb up the corporate ladder. Thirty-one percent of the surveyed executives attribute those challenges to weaker or less strategic networks available to African-American women. Inaccurate perceptions of African-American women’s capabilities (24 percent) and work/life balance demands (23 percent) round out the top three issues cited as preventing or slowing down their rise.

When we discussed these findings with African-American women executives, many noted their personal experiences with these and other barriers, as well as the most effective ways to overcome such challenges. While persistence and hard work were most often mentioned by women as the best way to progress to the C-suite, most acknowledged that the dynamics of race require additional effort – what some might refer to as self-initiative or, as Barack Obama might say, audacity.

Lack of Strong Strategic Networks

From her extensive experience, which includes 10 year of work as a sales and marketing executive at Johnson & Johnson, Toyi Ward believes that the lack of strategic networks is indeed the greatest barrier to black women getting to the executive levels. “These networks are not only professional but social,” Ward explains “because black women tend to have a social network of other black executives, they often miss the unofficial talk concerning opportunities and projects at work.” Ward believes that unless black women dive into the social network of their peers, they end up missing the opportunity to build strong relationships outside of work with the key decision makers who determine executive advancement in the corporation. “It is not only the interaction at work that matters,” Ward continues “but also the social interaction on golf courses, soccer fields, and car pools where promotion is granted.”

Patricia L. Charlemagne, Chief Operating Officer of Future Leaders Institute Charter School, agrees that black women struggle to be included in vital networks. “In the workplace, people develop and form relationship based on commonalities,” she explains “[and thus,] where there are a limited number of black female executives, it is easier to remain an outsider.” As outsiders, some black women find their white male counterparts are being groomed for advancement from the date of hire. Meanwhile, by the time management realizes that the black women are just as or even more talented than the individual selected to be groomed due to various commonalities, there is simply no time to provide the visibility and exposure necessary to propel the black women to the next level.

Consistent Undervaluing of Ability

While many women agreed that their organizations recognize the abilities of black women, several highlighted how their abilities were consistently undermined by their race and gender while they climbed the ladder. “I was able to achieve executive status at the world’s leading healthcare company,” Toyi Ward says “however, my abilities were consistently undermined by my race and gender. Any promotion I received was because ‘they needed a black’ or ‘needed a woman,’ at least that was the perception.”
Maria Weaver Watson, Director of Strategic Marketing at Interactive One and great-granddaughter of abolitionist Frederick Douglass believes that black women sense a different level of scrutiny in the workplace and therefore adopt certain behaviors. “If a company institutes a business casual policy, for example,” Watson explains “more often than not, African American women are the last ones to embrace the policy. They feel they need to be as perfect as possible.”

Tough Choices of Work-Life Balance

The challenge of achieving work-life balance is a barrier that Maria Weaver Watson describes as “the elephant in the room.” She believes black women executives, just as other women, are perceived as having to choose between their career and family life. She adds, however, that when race is part of the picture, “there is a very challenging racialized scenario.” She believes there is a strong pressure upon black women to choose, but employers’ perceptions about black mothers makes this pressure deeper and more difficult to address. “The idea of choice is more challenging in the African-American community,” she explains “especially for single mothers.”

Prejudice Regarding Work Style

Another barrier is the perception that black women are difficult to work with because their personalities and demeanors are often different from the ‘typical women’ that their white male counterparts are used to observing. “Most of the time,” Toyi Ward explains “black women in leadership are decisive, resolute, and outspoken. We speak no differently than our white male counterparts, but it’s less palatable coming from sultry bronze lips.”

Patricia L. Charlemagne agrees that the “angry Black woman” stereotype is still alive in corporate culture. “I have found that my managers expect me to play a more nurturing and supportive role, an expectation that is not placed on men who are similarly situated,” Patricia shares. “I have had former employers ask me to ‘tone’ down my approach to disagreeing with a position or offering an opinion, “ she continues “Men who are similarly situated do not deal with such issues.”

The prejudices regarding work style motive some black women to seek out companies or assignments where they are more respected. Toyi Ward recalls how she was once in a “tight race” for a job because the team “heard I was difficult to work with” and “the other guy was not seen as strategic.” When she was told of the dilemma, she removed her name from consideration “to make their decision easier”. “I ran an organization of nearly 100 people with seven managers reporting directly to me,” Ward continues “each manager rated me a ‘5’. They loved working for me. We were #1 in the nation. I wonder where the other team ‘heard’ their information?”

Overcoming Barriers Requires Initiative

Toyi Ward’s strategy of seeking opportunities where her skills are valued is embraced by Patricia Charlemagne. In fact, Charlemagne believes that the best way to overcome the barriers is to accept a position in industry or corporation that values diversity and has demonstrated proof of it. In addition, Charlemagne recommends joining a staff where there are other executives who are of color. “But, such actions only address the top down issues,” Charlemagne continues. For those who truly want to penetrate the corporate world, Charlemagne believes “it is an ongoing battle with no immediate solutions.”

For Maria Weaver Watson, part of the solution has been two specific personal actions: initiative to develop mentors and determination to find her own voices. Watson shares that “as a child, my parents would tell me ‘you will not succeed on your own, you need advice and guidance of many’.” She found this reinforced by mentors early in her career, before she entered the corporate world. Once she knew how she wanted to focus her career, she took the initiative to educate herself about potential mentors over a long period of time, eventually reaching out to mentors she admired. Watson also became determined in her career to find and use her own voice, trust her instincts, and aim high. When necessary, she turned to mentors. She also recommends coaching, which she believes may help some black women find their own voice.

The type of self-initiative described by Watson has been highlighted by many in the field. As stated by Carl Books, President and CEO of The Executive Leadership Council, “not only should senior executives cultivate more trusted and strategic relationships with high-potential black women executives, it is [also] important for black women executives to have and execute detailed plans for advancement and demonstrate a passion for the values and culture of their companies.” Since the women we spoke to are most certainly practicing this type of self-initiative, it is not surprising that Patricia Charlemagne is somewhat optimistic about the future. “I suppose that as our society becomes more receptive to difference (i.e. the Obama effect), and other strides are made, the struggle will become easier.”

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