An Office Of Her Own

Black women have proven themselves a force to be reckoned with in the world of business. But is the best yet to come?

National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and president of Kleenize Benje Carpet Specialists in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Thanks, ironically, to downsizing, "more women have money to invest at an earlier age, due to company buyouts [and other factors]. With 10 or more years left to work, many are choosing to invest in themselves and an enterprise of their own."

Some black women were motivated to contribute to this business boom because of the infamous glass ceiling. About half of the black women business owners polled by NFBWO said that being the boss was the greatest payoff of business ownership. This makes sense, considering that nearly as many reported hitting the glass ceiling or encountering some kind of discrimination in their previous career.
Bari-Ellen Roberts knows about this firsthand. "White women hit a glass ceiling, but black women run into a brick wall," says Roberts, a former senior financial analyst for Texaco and lead plaintiff in the Roberts vs. Texaco lawsuit filed in 1994. The suit ultimately resulted in the largest discrimination settlement in the nation’s history. "At least with the former, you can look up and see what’s above you; there’s still hope. For us, the only way to even see the other side is to break through the wall," says the president and CEO of Bari-Ellen Roberts Inc., a diversity strategy consulting firm in Stamford, Connecticut.

The numbers indicate that business ownership for women seems to be on the rise. However, the same doesn’t necessarily hold true for women on the professional path.

There’s no denying that women have made it onto the corporate playing field. With the help of public policy programs created in the 1970s, such as affirmative action, women finally gained the opportunity to try out for the team. Once they made the cut, most proved to be formidable players who had the talent to stay in the game.

Donning the coach’s cap, however, has proved to be a more daunting task. This is particularly true in the case of black women, who continue to struggle to land the corner office with a view. A Catalyst study, Women of Color in Corporate Management, reveals that African American women remain the most underrepresented group of women of color in private-sector management.

The findings showed that black women make up 12% of the 57.8 million women in the workforce, but only account for 7% of the 2.9 million women at management level. Despite having the second highest number of college degrees-40%, second only to Asian women at 63%-their average compensation ($229,000) lags behind that of white women ($250,000). At 58 cents for every dollar their white male counterpart earns, African American women managers are also the second-lowest wage earners of all minority groups.

The perception that black women receive the short end of the stick in corporate America isn’t a figment of their collective imagination, says Elynor A. Williams.

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