Qualified Black Women Are Being Held Back from Management

June 11, 2015 Sylvia Ann Hewlett
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At the consultancy where she used to work, Karla Martin, Google’s Director of Global Business Strategy, watched a partner repeatedly offer the lead role on new business to a white male whom she had previously led on a massive cost-reduction project for a multimillion-dollar client. “That partner simply couldn’t remember that it was my leadership, my work — aided of course by the team and that one guy (we’ll call him Jim) — and that I’d been instrumental in hiring Jim and promoting him while I was leading it,” she says. “He’d look me straight in the eye and say, ‘Why don’t we put Jim on this new account? He did such a great job with that cost reduction project.’”

Martin’s story is one we heard repeatedly over the course of our 2015 study of black women and leadership. Highly credentialed and qualified (Martin, for example, has a Harvard Law degree), our interviewees report being both painfully conspicuous –“unicorns,” as one put it — and manifestly invisible. Or they’re seen but not heard: 46% of the college-educated black women we surveyed say their ideas aren’t heard or recognized. Our stats show that black women are twice as likely as white women to be leaders in their communities — running a school board, leading a youth initiative, heading up a charity or community organization, as 43% report — but their experience outside of work falls off the radar of management at work. They’re leaning in with all their might: black women are 2.8 times as likely as white women to aspire to a powerful position with a prestigious title. Black women, moreover, are absolutely present in their households (54% of those who are married or living with a partner are primary breadwinners) as well as in the homes of friends and families: 49% care for elderly relatives and 36% help out with child care, according to Kaiser Family Foundation data.

Black women, that is, are ready, willing, and able to lead. Yet those who’ve battled their way into the upper middle realms of corporate America languish there, despite their formidable credentials (49% of black women vs 40% of white women in our study hold graduate degrees). And, despite their ambition and qualifications, 44% feel stalled in their careers (as compared to 30% of white women). Sitting at the intersection of biases about race and gender, black women labor to overcome both while benefitting from the affirmative action of neither.

What makes this especially curious is that stereotypes about black women actually overlap with normative assumptions about leaders. “Think about ‘male’ leader characteristics: confident, assertive, stand up for what they believe in,” points out Katherine Phillips, senior vice dean of Columbia Business School and the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics. “Now, think about stereotypes of ‘black female.’ Confident, assertive, stand up for what they believe in.”

And yet, Phillips notes, “people won’t open the door for black women.”

What, or who, will open the door? Our research suggests a first step: we must change the lens through which senior management assesses leadership potential. Only 11% of black women in corporate America say they have a sponsor, a powerful advocate invested in their career success. That’s because leaders (overwhelmingly white men) tend to select, groom, and promote individuals who remind them of themselves. Unconscious bias blinds them to prospective leaders who don’t look, act, or sound like they do.

But even small changes can combat these tendencies. We have seen companies in our Task Force of 87 global organizations making inroads. At The Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation (DTCC), for example, leaders who have gone through bias awareness training report becoming more attuned to talent at the edges of their radar. “Instead of turning to my go-to people when I need someone to cover for me at a meeting, I now look at my broader team,” one leader remarked. Another has changed the route she takes to the common areas in order to engage people she hasn’t met in conversation. Another senior leader is arranging skip-level meetings, bypassing mid-level managers to get to know more of his reports lower in the pipeline.

It’s making an impact, according to Nadine Augusta, director of Diversity and Inclusion at DTCC. “Leaders get it,” she says. “Now that our senior management team members are aware of unconscious bias, we all need to be held accountable for driving behavioral change across the organization in order to achieve our diversity and inclusion goals. The systemic piece is significant, and we don’t tend to address it as deliberately as we should. We’ve got to measure the behavioral changes we want to see across our organization, in order to ensure that this awareness sticks.”

A lot is at stake, and not just for the black women whose leadership capabilities go unrealized. To compete in a global marketplace that looks ever more female and nonwhite, companies will need talent that’s much more keenly attuned to the needs and unmet wants of women and people of color — and leaders who see, hear, and get behind that talent. Research we conducted in 2013 reveals that employees at publicly traded companies with 2D diversity – that is, a mix of demographic characteristics and a wide array of life experiences — are 45% more likely to report a growth in market share and 70% more likely to report that their firm captured a new market. Those are some eye-opening statistics.

What remains to be seen is whether they’re enough to lift the blinders that keep companies from seeing black women as ready to take the reins. Our interviewees suspect not: Martin, for one, says she isn’t waiting for opportunity to come knocking. She targeted one of the senior-most men at Google as a potential sponsor, apprised him of her skills and the value she could bring to his mission, and then laid out what she wanted from him, both to help drive her own career and to press the agenda of hiring more professionals of color.

“You have to be that direct,” she explains. “You have to ask for his commitment, and, once he’s vested, you have to hold him accountable.” Martin says her sponsor has more than stepped up to the plate and that, as a result of his advocacy, she’s now meeting her goals. “I’m here to make a difference,” she says. “I don’t think black women get real power until we get better representation — and that won’t happen without the support of those who are in power now.”

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