Getting the Corner Office

G. Arlivia Babbage Gamble is used to being the only female or African American in high-level meetings at State Farm Insurance Cos. This division vice president knows that her male colleagues — nothing personal, mind you — sometimes ignore the fact that she’s in the room. Gamble goes on frequent business trips and says that there have been times when she’s felt nearly invisible within these groups. Men — often white and at her level — gravitate to each other and, as Gamble says, “speak the same language.” Even though she’s an executive, she often feels left out. “I’ve got reasonable amounts of power, reputation, and results. Sometimes I feel I have to stand up and scream to get noticed,” she says. “When you walk into somebody else’s game, you’re invisible to them if they choose you to be.”

Fitting in is just one of the challenges that women face when climbing the slippery corporate ladder in an attempt to shatter a ceiling that experts now describe as concrete.

“[The ceiling] is more dense and hard to see through. It really is a powerful factor in affecting the experiences of women in corporate management,” says Katherine Giscombe, senior director of research at Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization that works to advance women in business. Giscombe led a 2004 study titled Advancing African American Women in the Workplace: What Managers Need to Know. The study showed that despite advances made over the past few decades, non-Hispanic black women hold just 5.1% of the nation’s total professional, managerial, and related jobs. According to Catalyst, black women constitute just 1.1 % of corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies. That’s a mere 106 out of 10,100 corporate officers.

Most surprising, says Giscombe, was the discovery that despite corporate diversity policies and practices, 37% of African American women see their chances for advancement to senior management declining, in contrast to Latinas and Asian women, who see their chances increasing.

Despite the roadblocks in corporate America, black women can — and have no choice but to — play an active role in managing their career development. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. “If you want to win the game, you’ve got to be on the playing field,” says Lois Frankel, president of Corporate Coaching International and a workplace behavior expert whose clients range from the Walt Disney Co. to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. She is also the author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make that Sabotage Their Careers (Warner Books; $19.95). This book addresses the obstacles women of all backgrounds sometimes place in their way.

“It’s a little bit like tennis. If you hit the ball back to the opponent at the middle of the court, you’ll never win the game, because the game is won at the edges. You need to start expanding the bounds, because the wider the bounds, the more field you have to play on.” Women who win, says Frankel, play at the edge.

We talked to four high-achieving women about their corporate