“Black Women Ready to Lead,” a new report from the The Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), sheds a harsh light on why there are so few Black women in leadership roles in corporate America. CTI, an organization focused on research supporting the need for diversity in corporations, found there are many barriers to Black women’s success in the workplace. While they are more likely to seek high-ranking leadership positions (44% compared to 30% of white women), they are routinely ignored and passed over for promotions. Black women are, for all intents and purposes, invisible in the eyes of corporate leadership. Felice, a 28-year-old financial professional, knows a few things about being invisible in the corporate workplace. Last year, she found herself dealing with implicit bias at her job. While one of Felice’s white male coworkers handled a lighter portfolio, she shouldered more intensive projects, which included taking on some of his work. She later found out the lighter portfolio he handled was the basis of his promotion. Felice was told during her review that while she was exceptional, she would not be promoted. She wasn’t given any credit for the additional work she did to help her colleague because she was told that was “just doing her job.” Her manager argued the male coworker was more efficient than Felice was — because he never stayed late and seemed to manage his time more effectively. It wasn’t until this man left the company that it was discovered he hadn't completed his own work. Since then, Felice has received more praise, but she still hasn’t been able to get a promotion. “I was always told, 'work hard; you'll get that promotion.' I wish we'd teach our girls the truth. You can work until you're blue in the face and you may never get the promotion or the credit you deserve,” Felice told Refinery29 via email. “I have an MBA in finance and a MSA in accounting. I graduated with great GPAs from both programs and I am working on my license, but I keep hearing that I am unqualified. I keep getting told that I need my CPA license. Keep in mind that this hasn't been required of others who have moved up the ladder,” she says.
CTI's report outlined the major challenges Black women face as they try to break the glass ceiling in the corporate world. While Black women are more confident than white women that they will be successful in leadership roles (43% versus 30%), the study found they are 26% less likely to have their ideas promoted than their white male peers. Black women also lack sponsorship and help from professional mentors. Just 11% reported having a sponsor. Finally, they are more likely to “make no noise.” Their belief that hard work alone is enough to flourish ends up backfiring and having negative consequences on their careers. There is other research enforcing CTI’s findings. The Center for American Progress found only 5.3% of management positions are held by Black women. A 2011 report from the League of Black Women Global Research Institute, "Risk and Reward,” found only 1% of U.S. corporate officers are Black women. As CTI’s study finds, Felice’s experience isn’t unique. Jenn, a 30-year-old former tech professional, has also experienced the pitfalls of being a Black woman in corporate America. At work, Jenn’s contributions were often ignored or — worse — co-opted. “I once became very ill, and when I returned after one month in the hospital, multiple peers, including an intern, had claimed credit for work I was doing before I left. They even went so far as to train me on spreadsheets I had created,” she says.
But, being visible had its downfalls, too. “My smallest mistakes were hyper-visible and often made it around the office before I knew I had made a mistake. I was warned that I had to be better and perform better because my peers ‘were watching.’ Meanwhile, I watched others get promotion after promotion for mediocre work and inconsistent performance. Yet, every performance review I received was satisfactory,” Jenn says. CTI suggests one of the best ways to rectify the issue is to focus on the biases preventing sponsorship. Focusing on “training leaders to assess Black female talent through a more enlightened lens” will aid corporate leadership in retaining and promoting black women. Of course, it is no surprise Black women find themselves isolated in the workplace. A mix of race- and gender-based prejudices influence the ways Black women are viewed. They often find themselves on the receiving end of what is known as misogynoir, a term coined by academic Moya Bailey to describe the unique racism and sexism Black women face on a daily basis, in both their personal and professional lives. The issue of Black women being ignored at their jobs requires an honest conversation about the underlying reasons for their marginalization. There are companies actively working to make changes in the workplace. DiversityInc releases its "50 Top Companies for Diversity" list annually. Top companies in 2015 include Kaiser Permanente, MasterCard, and Johnson & Johnson. Companies are judged based on their leadership commitment to diversity, talent pipeline, and development, as well as their amounts of spending with supplier companies owned by members of underrepresented groups. But, not everyone is convinced widespread change will happen. Felice says: I'm not really optimistic things will change in corporate America. I think we have our work cut out for us. There are so many smart women out here who aren't relying on corporate to give them their big break. They are stepping up and taking their destiny into their own hands by starting their own businesses, and they are thriving. If I could tell one thing to another young woman of color, I would say dream big and aim high. Six doors may close on you, but that doesn't have to be the end of the story. Focus on your strengths and experience, and use them to build your own business.