Black Women Leaning In But Still Overlooked
Words: Ashley Poag
We’re incredibly ambitious and capable, but the cards are often stacked against black women. Here are ways to combat the three biggest obstacles on your path up the corporate ladder.
Black women are qualified, confident, and actively seeking high-profile positions in the work place. By all accounts they are “leaning in,” the concept of embracing challenges in the workplace, suggested by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. But a new report shows they are still getting treated as if they are invisible in the corporate space.
The Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit organization, released a report showing that black women are more ambitious and more interested in leadership than their white counterparts. Only 8% of white women surveyed desired powerful positions with prestigious titles compared to 22% of black women. The report goes on to show that black women prepare for the roles they desire: 40% of black women surveyed have long-term career goals whereas only 32% of white women surveyed do. But despite their efforts, only about 5% of managerial and professional positions are held by African-American women, Fortune.com reports.
This discrepancy between ambition and reality takes an emotional toll: 44% of black women in the survey say they feel stagnant in their career and more than half (55%) are dissatisfied with their rate of promotion. (For their white counterparts, it was 30% and 28% respectively.) While there are many obstacles black women must navigate to get to the top of the corporate ladder, there are ways to overcome them.
“We combat stereotypes that have existed long before we came into the room,” says Dr. Sandra Miles, director of student affairs and university ombudsman at Indiana University–Purdue University Columbus. Since black women don’t fit in society’s stereotypical mold of what an executive looks like they are completely ignored, according to Columbia University psychology professor Valerie Purdie-Vaughns. This includes their hard work and ideas: 26% of black women feel their skills go unrecognized by their superiors, compared to 17% of white women.
Unfortunately, the oft-repeated maxim “You have to be two times better” comes into play here. As Ogilvy Africa’s CEO Nadja Bellan-White told mater mea, “You either say, ‘Oh, I’m going to leave the industry all together’ or you say ‘I’m going to prove you wrong.’ I choose the later. You just have to be better, be excellent, [and] let the work speak for itself.”
Lack of Sponsorship
According to the report, only 11% of women of color have the support and sponsorship of senior members in their companies. This type of “cheerleader” plays a vital role in career advancement. We’ve all heard the phrase, “It isn’t what you know but who you know.” Black women lack advocates that sit at the decision-making table. This is a person that will speak-up for them or defend them when needed.
These types of mentors are integral to our success, Amway CMO Candace Matthews told mater mea. “A sponsor is the person inside your company telling decision-makers what they need to know about you,” she explains. “A mentor is someone who can be outside your company telling you what you need to know about yourself. You need both to help you navigate your career.”
Many black women respond to this middle management purgatory by isolating themselves and working extra hard. The problem is hard work won’t always attract the recognition needed to advance into upper management. Isolation makes it harder to connect with co-workers and higher-ups that can be mentors or sponsors.
“Those who could promote me had no clue as to who I am,” recalls Miles of Indiana University–Purdue University Columbus. She suggests women of color should be more socially proactive: take co-workers up on social invitations and invite influencers out to lunch to discuss your goals.
These strategies may not lead to equality right away for all working black women, but perhaps it can go a long way in improving your career trajectory so that you may be in the position to mentor the next woman of color.
“There’s got to be someone who’s willing to do the tough job, there’s got to be someone who’s willing to say, ‘Ok, I’m going to break this ceiling. I’m going to be different, I’m going to be bold, I’m going to take a chance. I’m going to break the barriers so somebody else can come up behind me,’” says Bellan-White. “Someone has to do it. If everybody runs for cover, the industry would remain the way it is.”
Ashley Poag is mater mea's intern and an aspiring multimedia journalist.