"Black women have been sorely overlooked, and part of the problem is that we aren’t visible as a single entity," adds Williams, vice president of public responsibility for Sara Lee Corp. in Chicago. "Many corporations-to their benefit-still simply consider us ‘two-fers,’"
representative of the blanket categories minority and women. "This denies us the voice we certainly need to be heard," she says.
Williams cites few role models in decision-making positions as a factor inhibiting the advancement of women of color at a more competitive rate. More important, she believes their already sparse numbers also contribute to this problem. According to the Catalyst study, in comparison to their white counterparts, 21.6% of women of color (nearly a quarter of whom are African American) intend to leave their present companies due to a lack of advancement opportunities, no informal networks and the absence of company role models of the same race.
Though sad, these findings should not come as a surprise. Striving to get ahead while guarding against the double blows of racism and sexism is a very real and wearisome problem women of color face daily in corporate America. Out of frustration, some women simply leave-and even discourage their daughters from pursuing a corporate career.
Others, like Dianna Green (see "About This Issue," August 1997), have taken more drastic measures. After stepping down from her post as a senior vice president at Duquesne Light Co. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she chose suicide as an extreme response to the disheartening challenges and stress many executive women face while climbing the corporate ladder.
Overall, the outlook may seem, at best, bleak, and, at worst, hopeless. But Williams believes things will get better. "As American corporations continue to move towards globalization, they hav
e no choice but to bring in the best minds they can find-regardless of color or gender-if they are to remain competitive," she maintains. "Black women bring a lot to the table-education, experience and perspective-so our future remains hopeful."
In retrospect, it wouldn’t be fair to totally demonize the corporate world. Indeed, many women entrepreneurs must admit that at least part of their success can be attributed to their corporate experience.
THE BEST (AND WORST) OF BOTH WORLDS
For some former black executives, even negative corporate experiences ended up being time well spent. Over half of sister entrepreneurs have started businesses related to their former careers, according to the 1998 NFWBO study From Women Business Owners of Color: Challenges and Accomplishments. And while they may have lacked coaching in the corporate setting, 52% reported drawing upon a mentor when establishing their companies.
"Once you have total responsibility, you need-and will want-to seek advice to make sure you don’t make unnecessary mistakes," states Jones, who wishes she had a mentor when she inherited her family’s business. "It’s just a smart thing to do."
Despite the success of minority women in business, sections of the road they travel remain rocky. Sister entrepreneurs are