By Aimee Hansen.
It takes both ambition and confidence to aspire to a top corporate position, and many professional black women have both in spades according to recent research.
Not only would Corporate America benefit to listen up, but there may also be a message for non-black women when it comes to owning our impact within leadership roles.
Despite facing many difficulties and obstacles, black women are even more ready to lead.
Power Women At The Top
Skim Fortune’s“Most Powerful Women”2015 and you’ll find Rosalind Brewer (#15 – CEO and President of Sam’s and Walmart), Ursula Burns (#17 – CEO and Chairman of Xerox, and Anne-Marie Campbell (#37 – President, Southern Division, Home Depot) holding steady rank, with Brewer and Burns hailed among “first ladies in Corporate America”by Black Enterprise.
Burns (#29) and Brewer (#65) also appear in Forbes latest “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women”, among 11 black women including Loretta Lynch (#34), the first African American woman to be sworn in as U.S. Attorney General.
Even though African American women make up only 2% of science and engineering employees, four black women were named on Business Insider’s “23 of the most powerful women engineers in the world”.
Skipping Over the Corporate Wall
African American women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the USA, and most keen to make themselves boss. They own 14% of female-owned businesses, with the number of black women-owned businesses having risen 322% since 1997 compared to 74% for all women-owned businesses.
Meanwhile in Corporate America, according to Catalyst 2015 data, black women make up 7.4% of employees in S&P 500 companies yet hold only 1.2% of executive and senior level positions and only .2% of CEO jobs. They hold 11.7% of female board seats, or just 2.2% of board seats.
In Fortune, CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce Margot Dorfman speaks to the rush towards entrepreneurism, “Women of color, when you look at the statistics, are impacted more significantly by all of the negative factors that women face. It’s not surprising that they have chosen to invest in themselves.”
Black Women Understand Power and Are Ready To Lead
A recent report, entitled “Black Women: Ready to Lead” by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), which gathered responses from 356 black women and 788 white women in professional roles, reports the frustrating corporate paradox experienced by black women:
They are more likely (than white female counterparts) to recognize the personal and collective potential of holding the top jobs and aspire to them yet more likely to feel stalled in their careers.
According to the CTI report, African American professional women are 2.8 times more likely to want the top jobs – 22% aspired to a powerful position and prestigious title, compared to only 8% of white professional women. They were 50% more likely to say that the “ability to earn well”was important to their careers (81% vs. 54%).
The report, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Tai Green states, “Perhaps because they’ve been ‘leaning in’ for generations, black women on track for leadership are more likely than their white sisters to see an executive position as the means to getting what they want from their careers.”
The report reflected that African American women had a stronger sense that holding a leadership position would enable them to positively influence their own lives and their field.
On an individual level, black women “without power”were more likely than white counterparts to perceive a leadership role as “enabling them to flourish”(26% vs. 14%) and as an opportunity “to be empowered and empower others”(22% vs. 12%).
On a community level, African American women also were more likely to recognize as important aspects of power the ability to shape the direction of their field or profession (39% vs. 29%), the ability to guide other’s career development (33% vs. 25%), and the ability to exert influence on other powerful people (32% vs. 21%).
Indeed African American women “with power”were much more likely to report having meaning and purpose compared to their black peers “without power”(51% vs. 33%) and the ability to empower others and be empowered (57% vs. 42%).
The report also highlighted greater clarity and confidence. Black women were more confident than white women in their ability to succeed in a position of power (43% vs. 30%) and were more likely to have clear long-term goals (40% vs. 32%).
Despite stronger ambitions, more confidence and even more graduate degrees (49% vs. 40%), the report found black women were more likely than white women to report feeling stalled in their careers (44% vs. 30%) and to feel their talents weren’t recognized by their superiors (26% vs. 17%).
As the authors wrote in HBR, “our interviewees report being both painfully conspicuous –‘unicorns,’ as one put it —and manifestly invisible.”
Many of the dynamics and challenges African American women face differ to those of white women, because of racial stereotyping and their “double outsider”status, sharing neither gender nor race with those in power, leading to issues such as lower sponsorship (unconscious bias means we chose those who remind us of ourselves) and harsher performance judgement.
Columbia University Professor of Psychology Valerie Purdie-Vaughns writes in Fortune, “I’ve examined how people’s brains are biased to ignore black women. When many think about ‘black executives,’ they visualize black men. When they think about ‘female executives,’ they visualize white women. Because black women are not seen as typical of the categories ‘black’ or ‘woman,’ people’s brains fail to include them in both categories. Black women suffer from a ‘now you see them now you don’t’ effect in the workplace.”
Turning Inequality into Motivation
Inequality -along with increased likeliness of being the primary breadwinner for the household, single motherhood, and a sense of personal and community responsibility -may just be the extra fuel that motivates African American women to strive for positions of power that would enable them to influence change in organizations.
As shared in the Washington Post by report co-author Green,”Themajority of black women we interviewed were raised by parents and grandparents who instilled in them this sense of not having a voice, and feeling they have a responsibility to go after it themselves and pave the way for other women to come up.”
African American women are raising their hands for leadership. It’s time the corporate blinders came off.