Black Women Increasingly Seek the Corner Office

Mellody Hobson (Courtesy of USC)

Mellody Hobson (Courtesy of USC)

Written by Jessica R. Key, Special to the NNPA from the Indianapolis Recorder

In business, there’s long been a perception among Black employees that they must work harder than their white counterparts to rise to the top. A recent report suggests Black women in particular are eyeing the executive office more so than their white peers.

A study conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a think tank that conducts research on the challenges diverse individuals face in the workplace, published a report that shows Black women are more likely than white women to aspire to a powerful position with a prestigious title.

“Black Women: Ready to Lead” also uncovers that Black women also perceive a powerful position as the means to achieving their professional goals and are confident they can succeed in the role. Yet, despite their ambition and qualifications, Black women often feel stalled in their careers.

This inertia can be attributed to the unconscious biases and the lack of advocacy these women face in the workplace.

The study was inspired by a report conducted last year by CTI that looked at women in the U.S., U.K. and Germany and found women often were not seeking positions of power. When they dug deeper, they discovered other racial groups had ambivalence to power except Black women.

Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and wife of film director and producer George Lucas, penned the report’s foreword.

“What sparked this was through some of the interviews conducted. Some of the African-American executives commented they really weren’t seeing an ambivalence to power from Black women,” said Tai Green, senior vice president at CTI and co-author of Black Women: Ready to Lead. “They said executive leadership positions, they find, are a hard sell for this group.”

Green and her team then focused on women in the U.S. to see if the data aligned with their qualitative research. All Black women questioned had a college education and often times had leadership experience outside of their jobs.

“We saw the narrative around Black women was one that isn’t really fraught with talk of the confidence gap or a need to ‘lean in’ as a group, but is far more likely to aspire to positions of power,” said Green.

She added that Black women are three times more likely than their peers to go for the top spot. Why?

Green said Black women responded they were raised hearing statements such as “you need to work twice as hard to be viewed equal to your peers” or “a lot of people struggled and sacrificed to make sure you have the opportunity to compete.”

“There was a deeply rooted understanding of what it means to not have a voice in this country for so long that really drove them to go for it,” said Green. This attitude stemmed from both obligation and personal ambition.

Green said where Blacks are similar to their white counterparts were among five things: the ability to flourish; to excel; to reach their purpose; the ability to empower others and be empowered; and have the ability to earn well.

Looking closely at attitudes about women’s finances, there was a gap. Fifty four percent of white women listed “the ability to earn well” as being important. For Black women, it’s 84 percent.

“We found that Black women list financial independence as a top goal,” said Green.

One possible contributing factor: Black women are more likely to be unmarried and supporting others such as raising nieces and nephews or significantly giving back to their community. To these Black women, having a top job means more money in order to completely and independently fulfill their financial obligations.

Green, who is African-American, said though Black women aspire to a powerful position with a prestigious title, external data shows there are still less than one percent of Black women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

“When we looked at the barriers to this, we found there is unconscious bias in the workplace. Black women said they felt they needed to conform to the traditional white, male standards in order to fit in or be seen as leadership material,” said Green.

Additionally, there is a lack of sponsorship or people speaking out on Black women’s behalf. Only 11 percent of Black women have senior level advocates. Hobson, who was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people, said instead of primarily looking to another Black person, Black women should look to others outside of their race as an advocate.

Angela Dabney, vice president of global initiatives and transformational giving at United Way of Central Indiana understands why the study may have been conducted, but strongly maintains she believes that Black women aspire to ascend barriers their mothers and grandmothers faced.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s the higher title. It’s getting beyond the societal expectation for them that has been for so many years,” Dabney added. “I feel Black women feel the need to make change, to change the world, and to do that, they need a certain level of power.”

Dabney said instead of chasing titles, Black women should strive for a good work/life balance and do what makes them feel fulfilled.

Dabney said her story reflects her beliefs. She worked in corporate America for many years and found she enjoyed volunteer work. When she moved to Indianapolis, she sought a job in the nonprofit sector and said the United Way is the place where she feels she has the greatest opportunity to make the greatest change. She develops strategies to ensure local initiatives align with nationwide United Way initiatives. She also works with high-level donors.

“Of course it was putting in the long hours, mentors and role models, but I have a passion for what I do,” said Dabney. “Women should go for positions they are passionate about. Going to work is much more fun when it matters to you.”

Green said she didn’t intend for the report to be polarizing, but wanted to show the comparisons between white and Black professionals because the narrative around white women is so widely reported.

“Because Black women’s background, experiences, and challenges differ from that of white women, we thought it was critical to show a side-by-side comparison and for organizations to see that taking a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work,” said Green.

WHAT BLACK WOMEN WANT MOST FROM WORK

  • 91% Ability to flourish
  • 89% Ability to excel
  • 85% Ability to reach for meaning and purpose
  • 81% Ability to earn well
  • 73% Ability to empower others and be empowered

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