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Under the Glass Ceiling? Throw Stones!

As Black History Month segues into Women's History Month, it's a fit time to review the challenges still facing African-American women climbing the corporate ladder in the Age of Obama.

As Barack Obama began celebrating his election as president last fall, the Executive Leadership Council started polling senior executives nationwide on their perceptions about minorities in senior business executive roles.

ELC spokesperson Damon Williams said the survey's timing — between Nov.2 and Dec. 2 — was perfect "to gauge the effect of Obama's presidency upon the business climate for minorities to successfully reach the prestigious CEO office — the C-suite." One of the signal discoveries from the Harris Interactive phone survey of 150 executives from Fortune 100 companies (chief executive officers, chairmen, executive vice presidents, vice presidents and directors) was "the perceptions of challenges and issues hampering the success of African-American women."

As it stands, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates African-American women comprise 5.2 percent of Americans employed in management, professional and related occupations (compared to their 6.2 percent share of the U.S. population), while women of color held 3.2 percent of the board seats in the Fortune 500 companies last year.

Meanwhile, only 12 women of any race are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (there are currently four African-American men as CEOs), although a handful of African-American women — like CEO Cathy Hughes at Radio One or Chief Operating Officer Debra Lee at BET — are well placed at smaller but still well-known companies.

Of those surveyed for Washington, D.C.-based ELC, 31 percent attribute these challenges to the weaker or less strategic networks available to African-American women. They also cited inaccurate perceptions of these women executives' capabilities (24 percent), and balancing home and work demands (23 percent) were all cited as conflicting obstacles toward rising high enough to break through the glass ceiling.

Even using the term glass ceiling may be seen as charitable. The nonprofit organization Catalyst ("the leading research and advisory organization working to advance women in business") has for years referred to the barriers faced by women of color as the "concrete ceiling."

"The metaphor of a 'concrete ceiling' stands in sharp contrast to that of the 'glass ceiling.' Not only is the 'concrete ceiling' reported to be more difficult to penetrate, women of color say they cannot see through it to glimpse the corner office," Catalyst President Sheila Wellington was quoted in 1999.

And five years later?

"Thirty-seven percent of African-American women see their opportunities for advancement to senior management positions in their companies declining over time, in contrast to Latinas and Asian women who are more likely to see opportunities slightly increasing," Catalyst reported.

As Diane Coutu blogged in the Harvard Business Review the day after Election Day, "A great deal of psychology research shows that people in positions of power tend to promote folks who are like themselves. Since corporate America is still the domain of white men, African-Americans and other minorities are discriminated against either consciously or unconsciously."
Her blog post's title? "Does Obama's Win Extend to Business?"

Brave and Lonely
"We have to remember that unlike their white, male counterparts, most black women who are in their 50s and 60s serving in CEO, board and senior executive positions today achieved that goal without a lot, if any, role models, mentors or roadmaps," noted Ancella Livers, ELC's executive director. "The 'good-old-boy networking,' in work and/or society, was not available when we were seeking that upward path to achievement."

Lacking an available pool of mentors and guideposts, women — African-American women especially — do not get the kind of feedback, nor are they inclined to request the type of positions that will demonstrate their value to an organization.
"In both (the ELC's poll and the 2008 Black Women Executives Research Initiative study) we see the same kind of disconnect," Livers said. "We found that African-American women are not comfortable with asking for feedback, nor are they comfortable with those (white males) who are giving it. As a consequence, they are not getting what they need to move forward."

ELC's poll asked, "What do you think major corporations can do to increase the number of African-American female executives in senior management teams?"

Answers included "...recruit minority women in lower levels so they can develop within the organization," and recommending that management "make opportunities known to those seeking to move up." An overwhelming majority suggested that "women seek out and get visibility ... and stretch roles early in their careers ... particularly those jobs with profit and loss responsibility."

But it is perhaps the differences in perception from both sides of the executive fence that Livers sees as a significant challenge. "What is important here are the differences between the CEOs' and black women executives' beliefs about their roles."

In the yearlong Initiative study (completed in the spring of 2008), CEO responses suggested they believe black women executives "were not open to, or not available to receive feedback," and "that they may not have the skill or experience" to advance to the most coveted senior positions.

Livers cites two examples: One of the CEOs commented, "There is an issue whether black women have emphasized whether they have taken on the most challenging assignments, but are not getting the credit for it and not getting the value for it. You want to anticipate what you want, and what you think is owed to you, and ask for it in advance."

Yet, one of the black women executive respondents shares her insight from her own personal experience.

"I didn't get feedback about why I wasn't considered for the general manager role. I was given the feedback that 'this position is not for you' rather than hearing, 'this is what you need to do to become the GM.'"

Comparing these responses, Livers says, is significant. "The disconnects around their experience, feedback and coaching are being judged by different standards and expectations."

A Rising Tide?
Overall, ELC's Harris poll presents a positive perspective for minority participation, although there were differences in regional responses. In the Midwest, for example, executives were reported as less likely to recognize that minorities in leadership roles can "provide new ideas and innovation," than executives from the Northeast. Williams suggests this is not surprising, given those regions demographic differences in minority populations.

Recent economic events, a shifting demographic and the results of both the Harris poll and the Initiative study, Livers says, all make a strong business case for diversity.

"Having minorities in senior managerial and executive positions is important, particularly in an economic crisis. One has only to look at our population and realize that business should be asking for and encouraging new ideas to better reflect the customer basis and emerging markets."

Livers says these markets are a fast-growing economic presence. According to a January 2008 report from University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth, black buying power will hit and top the trillion-dollar mark by 2012. The study further reported that by 2011, the total buying power of blacks, Asians and Hispanics will have quadrupled from its 1990 level to $1.3 trillion.

"At a time when we are seeing gaps in leadership there is no luxury of throwaway people," Livers said. "As the discretionary income of minorities increases, companies must address the issue of attracting and retaining minority senior executives - they will emerge as critical decision makers to tailor advertising, media, products and services to our diverse communities."

She added that the findings showed women executives are more likely than males to both see specific benefits of having minorities in senior roles, as well as recognizing the importance and need for minorities to participate in these roles.

The ELC, meanwhile, is using its findings and those of the Initiative study to map strategies that will help guide minorities - particularly African-American women — to CEO and corporate board positions. The advice is focused on the job seekers and not the employers, although Livers stressed that "corporations need meaningful, cultural change to recruit, mentor and guide people, and minorities, especially women, must set goals with measurable benchmarks, and actively seek counsel and guidance to achieve them."

Meanwhile, Livers said ELC's guidance will target younger women on the executive path.

"Our recommendations and strategies may be too late for some women. In terms of timing, to gain certain experience required to access the senior C-suite positions, they are already past that.

"What we need is to create an awareness among younger women that now, not later, is the time to think about what you want and to be proactive in your career-building plan."

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