Study: C-Suite Exclusion of Black Women Due to Inadequate Visibility, Networks

'Burden is on black women' to attract opportunities

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As more companies are downsizing and reducing budgets, now more than ever, companies must understand how invaluable diversity is to its bottom-line, especially the influence black women executives bring to the corporate sector, according to a recent study.

Despite the fact that black women are graduating from college, graduate school, and joining corporate companies at high rates, many are having difficulty moving into senior positions. According to “Black Women Executives Research Initiatives,” a new report from the Executive Leadership Council (ELC) and the Executive Leadership Foundation, “because both their race and gender are beyond the norm in corporate America, black women like other women of color, face the burden of being ‘double outsiders.’ ”

Black women hold just 1% of corporate officer positions at Fortune 500 companies, according to a 2005 Catalyst report cited in the study.

“Companies can’t afford to overlook black women executives,” said Ancella Livers, executive director of the Executive Leadership Council’s Institute for Leadership Development & Research, at a private reception in New York City unveiling the ELC’s report.

The study explains that black women’s inclusion at senior levels can “help heighten the chance for broader and more innovative approaches throughout the organization” because they “champion new viewpoints to companies mired in status quo thinking.”

The report, sponsored by the Moody’s Foundation and J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation and conducted by Springboard, represents a year-long study on the success factors and impediments for black women executives reaching the C-Suite, including relationships, mentors and sponsors, work-life balance, risk-taking, and cross-cultural competence. Seventy-six black women, 18 CEOs, and 38 peers were interviewed.

Some of the key findings include:

Relationships with senior executives need more work. Black women executives suffer the lack of comfortable, trusted, and strategic relationships at the senior level with those who are most different from themselves, most notably white males.

Feedback is alive, but not well. Networks for black women executives do not provide enough strategic feedback about how they are doing and how best to advance.

Experiences that lead to the C-Suite are not visible enough. CEOs are often unaware of the breadth of skills and experience of black female executives. At the same time, the bar is higher for all C-Suite candidates.

Work-life balance means getting your house in order. Being proactive about managing the integration of work and life increases the ability of black female executives to compete at the highest levels.

A new leadership model emerges. The interview data clearly defined a new leadership framework for black female executives based on critical success factors for rising to senior levels in their organizations. The framework provides the foundation for a leadership assessment that black women at all levels can use.

CEOs interviewed for the study believe many black women executives “just say no” to leaving Profit & Loss (P&L) roles too early, seek big operating roles, and spend too little time developing strategic relationships. CEOs say black women executives need to be more visible and increase risk-taking. A

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  • Lynn Godfrey

    It really is sad that we’re still having this conversation, and that black women represent only 1% of executives in the “C-Suite”, I would submit it probably less than 1%.

    It has been my experience as an African American woman that the qualities you identify, that we bring to the table, “help heighten the chance for broader and more innovative approaches throughout the organization” because they “champion new viewpoints to companies mired in status quo thinking” are the very things that gets us in trouble.

    White men do not appreciate African American women bringing new approaches to the table, at least that has been my experience.