When it comes to dominating corporate America (or even getting solid footing in the door), women have had quite the uphill battle — and this fact is especially true for African American women. You may have heard of the term “glass ceiling,” a metaphor used to represent an invisible barrier keeps a specific demographic, typically a minority group, from rising above a certain level in a hierarchal system. The phrase was initially coined by feminists in reference to struggles high-achieving women face in their careers. However, the barriers set-up against black women in the workplace go far beyond the typical glass ceiling and is now being referred to as the “black ceiling” or the “concrete ceiling.”
After the death of her husband in 1889, Anna Bissell (yes, exactly like the vacuum cleaner), took his place and became the first woman CEO of an American company. In 1972, Katharine Graham became CEO of The Washington Post, becoming the first woman to hold the position at a Fortune 500 company. Things were starting to look up for women, right? Not entirely.
Fast forward to 2017. In June of this year, Fortune Magazine revealed its list of Fortune 500 female CEOs and unearthed some shocking statistics. The number of women CEOs listed had reached an all–time high: 32 in a single year. The percentage was still low — a mere 6.4% — but it had finally surpassed the 5% mark. The majority of that small percentage are white women. Since the departure of Xerox’s Ursula Burns, there are no longer any African American women topping Fortune’s list. In fact, only two women of color made the CEO list: Indra Nooyi of Pepsi Co. and Geisha Williams of PG&E Corporation.
Ursula Burns’ appointment to the position in 2009 was hailed as a milestone, but now looks like more of an anomaly.
Burns said with all the obstacles black women have to deal with in the working world, she’s not at all surprised that there isn’t a young Ursula ready to follow in her footsteps at Xerox or anyplace else. Even though black women are graduating from college in record numbers, now holding the title as the most educated demographic in America, little headway has been made for black women in the C-Suite, a problem that Fortune spoke to Burns about. And her answers simply reinforce the fact that though the glass ceiling may be cracking, the black ceiling for African American women seems to be firmly in place.
But the question remains: Why are brilliant, qualified black women still not making it to top company positions in record numbers?
According to Burns, black women who do “make it” end up in support roles rather than the operational positions that tend to lead to the CEO chair. This means that there are not enough working directly with the products and the money. “HR isn’t going to get you there,” she says. “Communications and the arts aren’t going to get you there.”
It’s also tough for black women to close the familiarity gap with those that currently hold the positions of power in corporate America: white men. White men are the ones most likely to be mentors and sponsors, and since they are neither white, nor men, black women are “double outsiders”, according to talent management research firm Catalyst.
This outsider status makes it more difficult for black women to penetrate the networks where jobs, mentors, and sponsors are usually found.
Additionally, since a post-racial America is by no means a reality just yet, office environments can often become a difficult space for black women to thrive. From constantly dealing with micro-aggressions to having their qualifications overlooked — Catalyst has dubbed these issues “emotional tax” and has documented the negative effects they have on the lives and productivity of black women. Not just at work.
Inspired by this emotional tax, Brittany Packnett created the #BlackWomenAtWork hashtag on Twitter. It quickly became a trending topic and provided a sense of community as black women shared the many affronts they endure at work daily.
And finally, the room to make risk is not always available to African American women.
According to Essence, this occurs because black women are generally the ones trying to maintain equilibrium in our homes and communities. “And as the wealth disparity among college educated blacks and whites continues to grow further apart, taking career risks — the type that would help lead to a CEO role — are often out of the question for black women.”
Until African American women are pulled into the boardrooms and no longer have to work twice as hard for half of the recognition, it will remain challenging to create lasting change. But we’re confident that with a little #BlackGirlMagic (and quantifiable change at high levels of all industries), all things are possible.