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21 Sep. 2016 | Comments (0)

In late 2014, poised to publish a report on women’s ambition, we stumbled on a startling fact: black women are nearly three times more likely than white to aspire to a position of power with a prestigious title.

And yet white women are about twice as likely as black women to attain one.

Roughly twenty women helm a Fortune 500 company. After the departure of Ursula Burns at Xerox, none of those women will be black.

The problem may lie in the constraints endemic to identity politics. Since the beginning, the Women’s Movement has treated all women, black and white, as having similar goals and suffering similar inequities; the Civil Rights Movement has likewise treated black Americans as a monolithic group. Enlisted by both movements, black women fought on both fronts. But fifty years later, they appear to have benefited from neither, relative to women and black men, in terms of their empowerment and advancement.

As we explore in our book, Ambition in Black and White: The Feminist Narrative Revised, neither movement recognizes their particular challenges in the workplace, nor their singularly fraught path toward equality. At the intersections of race and gender, both then and now, black women have labored unseen, even to those lobbying for their advancement.

We talked to black women who were among the first out of the gate when barriers fell to white-collar occupations. One of these was Charlene Drew Jarvis, longtime District of Columbia Councilwoman, who started out in 1965 as a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Health. Another was Geri Thomas, former Chief Diversity Officer at Bank of America, who started at the bank when she was a sophomore at Georgia State (and the bank was still Citizens and Southern National).

Both women came from educated parents (Drew Jarvis’s father was a physician and researcher who pioneered blood banks). But neither came from families that could help them fulfill their ambition in a predominantly white workplace—and be seen as leaders.

Thomas describes working literally in the back offices of the bank for white supervisors, encountering not one person of color until she reached the sidewalk on her lunch break, because management didn’t want black people interacting with customers and didn’t trust women with anything but admin or support roles. Drew Jarvis, with a Ph.D in neuropsychology from the University of Maryland, wanted to be recognized for her performance and work ethic, not her gender or color—so tried “never to present as a threat.” In a white bookstore, she took pains to impress the salesclerk with her diction and erudition, lest her color make him think she was ignorant.

Both women, that is, suffered from invisibility even as they stood out like unicorns, either because others insisted they not be seen or because, eager to be seen as equal, they elected to downplay what made them different.

Fifty years later, invisibility continues to cloak ambitious black women—as our interviews make clear — for much the same reasons. Capable and credentialed, a black lawyer at a DC firm explained how she took on an extra-heavy caseload and kept her head down, lest she be seen as “an affirmative-action choice.” A leader at a global investment bank explained how her role came “with training wheels,” with a limited remit and extensive oversight, because senior management wasn’t confident she could be trusted with strategic decisions and couldn’t allow her in such a visible role to fail (thereby exaggerating the likelihood that she would).

Employee resource groups (ERGs), sometimes known as affinity groups, are the corporation’s answer to this sort of struggle: at most multinational firms, there are ERGs for women, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, LGBT professionals, veterans, and employees with disabilities. Yet as with the Women’s and Civil Rights Movements, affinity groups leave those at the intersections of more than one identity–black women, or gay Latinos, or disabled Asians, or female vets—unseen and unsupported. Their goals may be the same: meaningful work that grows their skills, recognizes their effort, and rewards their performance. But their unique challenges in gaining the attention, and earning the advocacy, of senior leaders who differ from them in more than one way go unacknowledged and unaddressed. Lacking the pull of someone powerful, they languish in middle management. Or they leave.

Black women, our research shows, are a case in point: they have mentors and strong support networks but lack sponsors—leaders who will talk them up behind closed doors, steer plum assignments their way, and defend them against detractors. Affinity group membership might expose them to such leaders, but as members of the women’s network they are eclipsed by white women and as members of the African-American ERG they are eclipsed by black men.

The solution? ERGs needn’t go away, but they do need to acknowledge identities at the intersections, and address how the challenges of, say, women might differ in important ways depending on generation, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or veteran status. When ERGs organize events to solidify member bonds, they might consider content with wider appeal and open the event to other ERGs—to bridge, as well as bond. Better yet, ERGs might morph into BRGs, business resource groups that enlist leaders in solving issues critical to the business. That alliance allows for sponsorship to arise more organically, as leaders get to know and trust group members by working side by side toward a common goal.

Finally, leaders themselves need to acknowledge that invisibility for talent at the intersections is due to blinders they wear, and resist putting aside. The Old Boys’ Network persists not necessarily because white men are racist and sexist, but rather, because aligning yourself as the champion and protector of some rising star carries considerable reputational risk, and it’s just easier to trust someone who reminds you of yourself. It’s a reflex, especially in environments that are short on cross-silo or cross-ERG occasions that allow people to get to know one another in ways that bridge difference, solidify commonality, and build trust. Leaders must create a culture in which people at the intersections of functional or affinity identities have equal access to their attention or equal opportunity to earn it.

That ambitious black women feel stuck and stalled speaks to this larger problem of identity siloes within the workplace, which is often the one place in America where we consistently rub shoulders with people unlike ourselves.

To tap the talent of leaders whose identities lie at the intersections (surely a majority of the men and women working in corporate America today) we need leaders who create constant opportunities for cultural intersections where commonality can emerge; and who incentivize sponsorship of diverse talent by rewarding those who resist the reflex to advocate for “mini me’s.” In that inclusive workplace, sponsorship can arise organically across difference, and no one worthy of consideration for leadership falls off the radar.

In that workplace, history may no longer haunt us—or hobble the talent that’s ready to lead.


This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 07/01/2016.

View our complete listing of Diversity & Inclusion and Leadership Development blogs.

  • About the Author:Melinda Marshall

    Melinda Marshall

    Melinda Marshall is the Senior Vice President and Director of Publications at Center for Talent Innovation (CTI)

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  • About the Author:Tai Wingfield

    Tai Wingfield

    Tai Wingfield, senior vice president of communications for the Center for Talent Innovation and managing director at Hewlett Consulting Partners, drives corporate reputation efforts on behalf of each …

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