While there’s a distinct lack of black women at the uppermost tier of corporate America, it’s not for lack of ambition.
That’s according to a new report by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), the think tank led by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett. As the Washington Post reports, CTI looked into how black and white women differ in their attitudes toward advancement. While females of all racial backgrounds face an uphill battle on the way to the boardroom — there are just 23 female CEOs leading S&P 500 companies, and only one, Xerox head Ursula Burns, is black — African Americans are far more likely than their white counterparts to admit to seeking positions of prestige, the study finds.
In fact, they’re nearly three times as likely. As per the CTI’s data, 22 percent of black women say they aspire to positions with prestigious titles, while only 8 percent of white women make the same claim. What’s more, black women seem to have more faith in their abilities. Of the women surveyed, 43 percent of blacks said they’re confident they can succeed in top-level positions, while only 30 percent of white women indicated likewise.
Another interesting statistic has to do with compensation: 81 percent of black women said high earnings are important, compared to only 54 percent of white women.
While the study shows that black women have plenty of drive and confidence, it also suggests they feel held back. Asked whether they feel their careers have stalled, 44 percent of African American women said yes, compared to 30 percent of whites. More than a quarter (26 percent) of black women said their managers don’t fully appreciate their talents — a statement only 17 percent of white women agreed with.
Why, exactly, black women aren’t enjoying success equal to their ambition is an extremely complicated issue, but as the Washington Post reports, some experts feel it has to do with several factors. One is a lack of “sponsors,” or advocates among upper management who act as mentors but also go a step beyond, actively promoting the careers of their junior mentees. The CTI study found that just 11 percent of black women have these types of sponsors, compared to 13 percent of white women.
And then there are cultural factors. According to Robert Livingston, a professor at the University of Sussex, black women are unique in that they can “adopt a more assertive leadership style without being penalized compared to white women,” and yet if the make a mistake, they’re “penalized most harshly,” as they’re “two degrees removed from the prototype of a ‘leader,’ which is a white male.”
As Columbia Business School professor Katherine Phillips told the Washington Post, black women are stepping up to lead yet being knocked down by biases in the business world.
“We’re ‘leaning in’ so far we’re flat on our faces,” Phillips said. “Even if I keep leaning in, I need someone there to open the door.”