Breaking The (Glass) Concrete Ceiling

A new report examines whats keeping black professional women from high-level positions

“Being in corporate America is about playing team ball 100% of the time,” says Nicole Lewis, vice president of global marketing for Kelly Services, a company specializing in workforce management services and human resources solutions. “Even when you don’t want to play, you have to.”

For black women, the reluctance to “play” and the frustration with the corporate “game” is part of the focus for an in-depth report conducted by Ancella B. Livers, Ph.D., executive director of The Executive Leadership Council’s Institute for Leadership Development & Research. The report, Black Women Executives Research Initiative: Findings, documents a year-long study on the success factors and obstacles for black women executives reaching the highest levels of the corporate chain—the C-suite. Among the dynamics covered were the importance of relationship building, solidifying mentorship and sponsorship, finding work-life balance, identifying opportunities for risk-taking, and cross-cultural competence in a global work environment. Lewis was among the 132 participants that included 76 black women executives, 18 CEOs, and 38 professional peers. She represents one of thousands of black female executives who face daily challenges and regular disappointments as they work to advance their careers.

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. “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,’” cites the report, sponsored by The Moody’s Foundation and JPMorgan Chase Foundation and conducted by Springboard.

Some of the key findings:
Relationships with senior executives need more work. Black women executives suffer from 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 and not well. Internal 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. Black female executives oftentimes don’t have the opportunity to showcase the breadth of their skills and experience to the higher levels of the organization.

Work-life balance is an individual responsibility. Being proactive about managing the integration of work and life increases the ability of black women executives to compete at the highest levels.
Lewis, 47, a mother of two, who has C-suite ambitions in the area of sales and marketing, admits that she made personal sacrifices for her family that rerouted her career path.

When her son became ill due to a health challenge, she passed up opportunities that could have strategically positioned her for advancement. “It’s very important to me that I’m the one raising my children. I’m only willing to sacrifice so much of that,” says Lewis. “So I’m OK that I’ve taken a different path to try to get to the same place and that it may take longer.”

Family priorities have not, however, thwarted her drive in the organization. And she is, as outlined in the ELC report, following strategies that will continue to raise her profile in the company. To that end, Lewis pursued two business initiatives never before developed in the organization. Aside from successfully managing the risk involved, the assignments contributed to further professional development and boosted her visibility among senior executives. Lewis has also nurtured a relationship with her CEO. “He relies on me for certain information, and I rely on him.”

Black women hold just 1% of corporate officer positions at the 500 largest publicly traded companies in the country, according to a 2005 Catalyst report cited in the study. CEOs interviewed for the study believe that many black women get a late start in strategically positioning themselves for advancement in areas such as securing profit and loss positions and operating roles, as well as developing the important relationships that provide guidance, strategy, and feedback. CEOs say black women executives need to find opportunities to be more visible and to be seen as successful risk takers.

But Katherine Giscombe, vice president of Catalyst Women of Color Research, believes that the onus is also on corporations to change the dynamics in their organizations that create and support barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace. She says that more companies need to expand formal networks to decrease workplace exclusion and institute mentoring programs. African American women should build a corporate image of themselves that demonstrates their leadership skills; companies can help them do this by facilitating contacts between women of color and key influential leaders within a company, giving black women greater access to high visibility assignments, and by conducting rigorous assessments of the success of networks.

“There’s no secret that women of color have often been overlooked,” says Livers. “The passion behind this report is to show we really do exist in corporate America and we need to begin to tell our story and find out what’s going on in some deeper ways.”

The ELC report outlines four recommendations black women executives must act on now to increase their chances:

Stay in line positions as long as possible or negotiate for P&L (profit & loss) or operating roles. Livers says executives working in line positions have a very different type of skill set than their peers in staff positions. “The kinds of decisions you make under fire—whether or not the business lives or dies, grows or becomes stagnant—these are critical lessons to learn if you want to be in the C-suite,” she explains. Professionals seeking that type of experience must ask themselves what is the main business of their organization and gain skills in that area. It is also important to leverage that experience by strengthening internal relationships with senior management, finding mentors who will give you constructive feedback, and letting decision makers know your goals.

Apply for international experience in the emerging markets. “Any kind of international business experience is good experience,” says Livers. “Become fluent in several languages and ask yourself where is the future in your industry?” Read industry periodicals and trades as well as financial news in other countries for your industry.

Expand your responsibilities to become a bigger player in the organization. Livers says that you must show that you can think beyond your own unit. But you must also execute well in all these areas. “You need the skill set to know when to push and when to pull back, to optimize in your unit so that the rest of the organization becomes much stronger. The CEO can’t be the CEO for one line of business. You have to multitask in very complex ways.”

Get accomplishments on the radar screen of CEOs and peers to combat misperceptions. Livers says you must take on assignments that showcase your skills and boost your visibility. “A lot of times those assignments are the risky ones that matter to the organization. If you do well, you get praised. If you do poorly, you get blamed.” You have to be willing to take on those kinds of risks. But you also have to be keen in managing and assessing levels of risk.

Livers and her team hope this report starts a dialogue across corporate America, resulting in actionable steps. The ELC plans to reach out to CEOs and business schools to create visibility for the issue, discuss the implications for their students, and discuss the development of black women executives en route to the C-suite.

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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