• Jackie Capers-Brown

The Biggest Obstacle for Black Women In Corporate America

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

For those women who are seeking to be leaders in corporate America, this will be a daunting but doable task as long as they receive the training, mentorship, and sponsorship required to make it happen.

In October of 2019, LeanIn.Org and Mckinsey & Company released their annual Women in the Workplace 2019 study which is the according to them, "the largest study of the state of women in corporate America. The report reveals, "Over the past five years, the number of women in senior leadership has grown. Still, women continue to be underrepresented at every level."

The report acknowledges “more women are rising to top levels of companies as companies see the value of having more women in leadership.” However, it states clearly in its study that “companies need to focus on where the real problem is. The “biggest obstacle that women face is much earlier in the pipeline, at the first step to manager. Fixing the broken rung is the key to achieving parity.”

Why is this important to women, especially for Black women? Although women in the workforce have been asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rate as men, women of color are not securing promotions at a similar rate as white men, black men and white women. According to the study, Black women and Latinas are more likely to be held back by the broken rung which means they are less likely to be promoted to manager. Black women and women with disabilities face more barriers to advancement and are the least likely to receive support.

The report reveals, “For every 100 entry-level men who are promoted, just 68% of Latinas and 58% of Black women are promoted. White women hold 27% of manager jobs compared to 12% of women of color in management positions. The largest leadership gap is at the manager level.” Many decision-makers and employees don’t realize that the step up to a management role is the biggest challenge to getting equal numbers of women and men into management.

The top five common challenges that HR leaders, men and women in corporate America say is the cause for this leadership gap are:

1. Women don’t receive as much sponsorship

2. Women are judged by different standards

3. There are too few qualified women in the pipeline

4. Women are less likely to be promoted to a manager role

5. Women are leaving the workforce at higher rates than men (This study has not found any data that supports this claim.)

These are the top five challenges identified by the HR leaders, men, and women who participated in last year’s study. One of the insights that I found to be interesting is this: people are overly optimistic about the progress of women in their workplace when they see one woman in an executive leadership position. It’s as if one woman in an executive role makes up for all the women in entry-level positions being overlooked for a manager role in their organization.

The State of SC Women In Leadership

I live in my hometown of Columbia, SC. Two years ago, I was inspired to start the Level Up HER Leadership Initiative for women of color because of the findings in the Lean In.Org and McKinsey & Company 2017 study. In March of 2019, as part of the process of seeking to understand the state of women in leadership in SC, I requested the research expertise of a librarian at the Richland County Library on Assembly Street in Columbia, SC. Once he completed his research, he wrote me the following email message:

Dear Ms. Capers-Brown,

I found two sources of data from the Census that may be of use to you. The first is from the 2016 Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs, which includes data on female-owned businesses in the state by race/ethnicity.

The second is EEO Tabulation from the ongoing American Community Survey; the most recent available data from this is a little older (2006-2010), but it provides the numbers of women by race/ethnicity in either chief executive or general managerial occupations in the state. 

For the purpose of this article, I’m sharing only the EEO tabulation for the five year period that is currently available to the public.

EEO Tabulation, 2006-2010 (ACS)

Black female chief executives (SC) - 310/General managers - 630 (total 940)

Hispanic female chief executives (SC) - 25/General managers - 185 (total 210)

Asian female chief executives (SC) - 15/General managers - 35 (total 50)

White female chief executives (SC) - 2,745/General managers - 3,115 (total 5,860)

Albeit the data hasn’t been updated in ten years because it is based on Census data, you can see from this information how women classified in these four racial groups compare when it comes to who is being promoted into management and leadership positions within companies in our state.

Last month, I received an email from WREN about a recent study the organization conducted in partnership with the National Women’s Law Center. Based on this study, African American women earn 58 cents on every dollar earned by white men in South Carolina. I was shocked by this information.

Black women are one of the most educated and talented groups of women in our city and state, yet, based on this data that I received and my research, there are three primary causes, (1) Black women are stuck in entry-level positions and are not provided advancement opportunities to earn more money in many corporate workplaces within our state, and (2) they are earning less for the same or a similar job that’s held by white men and white women in our state, (3) economic injustice.

There’s a fact that I believe many corporations and communities are either unaware of or ignoring, according to a Nielson study, “If African Americans alone were a country, they would be the 15th largest economy in the world, with African American women controlling the lion's share of it. This means that collectively we have the economic power to effectively address the economic injustice experienced by our community.

I discovered that LeanIn.Org had completed the Black Women’s Equal Pay Survey in 2019 which found that Black women in the US on average earn 39% less than white men, and 21% less than white women. One of the most powerful insights that I gained from the LeanIn.Org survey was this: “Lower earnings for Black women means less money for their families, especially since more than 80% of Black mothers are the main breadwinners for their households. This impacts families’ ability to buy groceries, pay for childcare, invest in their children’s education, and more.” 

Key findings from the Lean In Black Woman’s Equal Pay Survey:

  1.  More than 1 in 3 Americans are not aware of the pay gap between Black women and White men

  2.  53% of Americans are not aware of the pay gap between Black women and White women

  3. Only half of Americans think that obstacles to advancements for Black women are gone

Opportunity Is Not Always Equal

Katherine Switzer states: “Talent is everywhere, it only needs the opportunity.” Thirty years ago when I started as a minimum wage employee at the Columbia Marriott hotel, I had no idea how the trajectory of the life of my children and me would be transformed by working for Marriott Hotels. During the course of my career with the company, I was able to go from earning minimum wage to achieving five management promotions in six years and securing the first of six executive leadership positions for several successful 7-figure businesses.

Throughout my career, I believed it was my responsibility to pay it forward as a result of the excellent training, mentoring and sponsorship that I received in each company that I worked at. One of my proudest achievements during my career came about as a result of three women that I trained, mentored and supported at the Fairfield Inn becoming General Managers. Two of which were Black women. My passion for training leaders inspires a lot of the work that I do today.

The generations of black women who have entered corporate workplaces since the time I started working at Marriott are more educated and more empowered. Many of them are not being provided with advancement opportunities to lead in their workplaces.  I believe that this reality is a key driver to why so many Black women are leaving corporate America and starting their own businesses. 

I’m a huge supporter of people learning how to become self-sufficient in ways that enhances their growth and ability to flourish. I encourage black women to improve their start-up business success by planning their transition from employee to self-employed to a business owner. For those black women considering this transition, I highly recommend that you read Melinda Emerson’s book, Become Your Own Boss In 12 Months  to prepare yourself for the entrepreneurial journey.

Another reason why I’m passionate about this subject is because of the number of young black women and black girls who are taught that going to college will get them a solid, good-paying job. For many black women, this may be true. For those who aren’t clear about who they are, what they stand for and where they are going, they will find themselves bouncing from job to job, or staying on a job for the paycheck, limiting their experience of having the satisfaction of working at a company or creating a business that provides them with the opportunity to do what they do best for much of their workday. And, if you don't understand how to strategically position yourself, navigate the politics involved with promotion and build a personal brand inside and outside of your organization, your career success could be determined by the whims of other people, instead of your performance and leadership capabilities.

For those women who are seeking to be leaders in corporate America, this will be a daunting but doable task as long as they receive the training, mentorship, and sponsorship required to make it happen. Black women seeking leadership positions in corporate workplaces need mentors and sponsors to help them understand the game of play taking place in the arena where they most want to win. They have to strategically equip themselves in ways to manage the reality of this process in an effective manner. In either case, this research about the state of the black woman’s experience in corporate America should not be overlooked by black women, parents or legal guardians of young black girls. This study and several other studies help to shed light on trends in corporate work environments at both the local and national level.

Great and Exceptional Corporate Workplace Cultures

There are many great corporate businesses in SC and throughout our nation. Companies that employ leaders who are devoted to building diverse and inclusive work environments. Companies that provide their leaders with unconscious bias training. I was a charter member of the Courtyard by Marriott Mid-Atlantic Diversity Council for several years. I know, and I’ve seen the positive impact this type of training can have on workplace cultures. Leaders in these organizations understand that leadership is about service, not a title. They communicate clearly what employees have to do to prepare and position themselves for advancement opportunities. These leaders are a lot like Mr. Marriott, they believe if they treat employees well, the employees will take care of the company’s customers. These leaders genuinely care about the well-being of their team members and the success of their organization.

There are exceptional companies with executive leaders who hold their leadership and management teams accountable for filling the organization’s leadership pipeline with diverse candidates. This means that these candidates will have access to additional training, mentors, stretch opportunities, and sponsors that provide them with exposure to key decision-makers. Exceptional companies develop leaders with the ability to create diverse and inclusive workplace cultures. These exceptional companies value diversity and inclusion. They see it as a competitive advantage. They provide unconscious bias training to front line managers and executive leaders. They see their workplace culture as a learning environment.

Leaders in exceptional companies strive to create workplace cultures where people with diverse perspectives and experiences feel seen, heard and valued. A large portion of their workforce feels they belong. They believe they will have growth opportunities that will advance their career. Leaders understand that when their workforce feels a sense of belonging it increases their capacity to build a high-performance workplace culture as a result of the level of engagement demonstrated by their workforce. Research has shown that when employees feel a sense of belonging within a company, they are happier, more loyal, and more committed to doing what it takes to help their organization succeed. Exceptional organizations even have the opportunity to be certified as a Great Place to Work®.

Fixing the Broken Rung

If you are a Black woman working in a corporate environment, you have to take responsibility for your career success. You can not assume that just because you work hard you will be considered for a promotional opportunity. You have to get clear about who you are, what you stand for, the impact you want to achieve as a leader, and the path that will position you to achieve your desired career success.

You have to develop the courage to show up and speak up for yourself, your vision and the value that you bring to the table. You have to embody the leadership qualities of the leader you believe you can become before you achieve your next level promotion. Most important, you have to detect whether or not the workplace culture that you are in is an environment in which you will have opportunities to grow a thriving career. I encourage you to not go into any major debt until you’re sure about this. You will become miserable overtime working in an environment that simply drains your life force because of the debt you owe. Here are a few steps to get you started toward fixing the broken rung:

1. Identify a few management or leadership positions that you are interested in within your current organization, or another organization.

2. If available, get copies of position descriptions so that you’ll have some general knowledge about your company’s expectations for someone in the position.

3. If this position is within your current organization, set up an appointment to speak to your immediate supervisor, an HR representative, and someone who’s currently working in that role. You want to share your aspiration with your boss unless it’s your boss’s job you want to do. If it’s your boss’s job, seek outside advice from someone you trust who has some knowledge of what the job actually entails besides what’s on the job description. If it’s a different leadership role, speak to your boss about your aspiration and ask her or him what they believe you need to stop, start and continue doing to properly prepare yourself to achieve this promotion. Have a similar conversation with your HR representative and someone who’s currently working in the role outside of your department or company.

4. Become a person of influence by applying what you’ve learned from these three conversations to create shifts in the way that you interact with diverse people and build supportive relationships, and how you approach your current work in order to level up your performance results. Your primary focus should be the development of the leadership skills that demonstrate to decision-makers in your organization that you can take on more and achieve consistent success before you achieve your desired promotion.

5. Find a way to stand out that provides you with an opportunity to contribute extra value to customers, team members, peers, and leaders within your company.

6. Seek constructive feedback about your performance results from your boss, HR representative, and the individual doing the exact or a similar job. Use their feedback as a tool to sharpen your skills. It’s important that you understand that the feedback you receive is a reflection of what that individual deems important about your performance in your current and desired position. Use what they share with you and what you learn in this process as a guide to winning in the arena you are playing in.

7. Inquire about stretch opportunities and secure them within your company. They will help you develop important skills and experience for the promotion you want to achieve. Securing stretch opportunities will provide decision-makers with an opportunity to see if you have the agile mindset and adaptive performance habits necessary to work well outside of your comfort zone. If necessary, pursue stretch opportunities outside of your organization. Make sure that you communicate any achievements that take place outside of your organization with your boss and HR staff.

8. Join a professional organization to build your professional network and expand your professional opportunities. This will also help you stay abreast of industry trends.

9. Pay attention to what gets celebrated, and recognized in your organization. It will reflect what leaders in the organization value the most.

10. Ideally, you want to achieve goals in your present position beyond people’s expectations, and complete projects on time, build positive and supportive relationships with people at all levels within your organization and manage up by helping your boss, and your boss’s boss succeed.

These actions will help you build and develop a personal brand that stands out. Your personal brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. Your personal brand also reflects the body of work that will create your professional legacy.

Becoming a person of influence is all about developing your emotional intelligence skills.(EQ) and leadership intelligence skills. (LQ) Becoming a leader who is able to influence the performance of others in a positive manner to create an impact that supports the success of your organization is an ongoing process. Success is a moving target.

Your ability to develop and cultivate high-performance habits, positive and supportive relationships, agile leadership skills, and manage up will help you to navigate your career or start-up business with greater success.

The LeanIn.Org and Mckinsey & Company annual Women in the Workplace 2019 provides women with insights about what other women are experiencing in the workplace. It is a useful resource but it doesn’t paint the whole picture of what women in the workplace are experiencing. It’s a high-quality snapshot of the modern corporate America arena.

I suggest that you read the study for yourself to increase your understanding. There is a download version of it. In addition, if your industry conducts a similar study, please make it a point to review it and understand the trends that it points out, and how they will impact your success in the industry.

Leadership is different for women. When Black women understand and capitalize on there most important resource: the truth of who they are, what they value and where they want to go, they are better prepared to position themselves in ways that will advance their vision, voice, and value as a leader in the workplace or marketplace as a start-up business owner.

Your leadership success is only limited by your thoughts and actions. Not sure how to bridge the gap between reality and your big idea? Get simple, actionable steps to start making progress. Enroll in my signature virtual women's leadership program: Girl, Rise & Lead. This leadership program will provide you with the safe space, support, mentoring and coaching you need to develop intentional leadership skills that will you to level up your leadership effectiveness and success.

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