Up Next

Black women

Study: Women of color underrepresented in corporate America, but also more ambitious and entrepreneurial

Black women are especially more likely to desire to start their own businesses

A new study, Women in the Workplace 2017, gets straight to the point: “Women remain underrepresented at every level in corporate America, despite earning more college degrees than men for thirty years and counting.” The gap stretches from entry-level to C-suite executive jobs. It’s more pronounced for women of color generally, and is particularly acute for black women, the study finds.

“Women of color are the most underrepresented group in the corporate pipeline. They experience the greatest challenges. Yet they receive the least support — and efforts to increase diversity are not adequately addressing the magnitude of the issues they face,” the study found. “Compared to white women, things are worse for women of color, and they are particularly difficult for black women.”

The third annual report was released Tuesday. A partnership between McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, it surveyed human resources practices for 222 companies and 70,000 employees, detailing their experiences regarding gender, career and work-life issues.

Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.org, called this year’s numbers “sadly, a very similar story to what we’ve seen for the last three years,” with progress possibly stalling. The 2015 report said it would take 100 years to reach gender parity in the workforce. In 2017, “1 in 5 C-level executives are women and, really sadly, 1 in 30 are women of color,” Thomas said.

This year’s report detailed the ways gender and race/ethnicity intersect.“It’s double discrimination,” Thomas said. “And it’s why women of color are having a worse experience.”

Here’s part of that experience by the numbers: 31 percent of black women say their managers advocate for them for opportunity, compared with 34 percent of Latina women, 40 percent of Asian women and 41 percent of white women. Black women feel less likely to interact with senior leaders, get advice or get stretch assignments from managers, and only 29 percent of black women believe the best opportunities go to the most deserving employees. That number is 34 percent for Latina women and 40 percent of Asian and white women.

Despite these findings, the study says, women of color have higher ambitions to be top executives than white women. And black women are significantly more likely to want to skip the corporate dance altogether and start their own businesses.

It’s heartening that despite their difficulties, “women of color are more ambitious than white women on average, and that black women in particular, who are having a particularly challenging experience in the workplace, lean more entrepreneurial,” Thomas said.

Sherry Sims, a former human resources professional, corporate recruiter and founder of the national Black Career Women’s Network, a community of online mentoring and coaching, said the findings track with stories that black women have shared with her. One of the most common complaints “is the overlooking when it comes to promotions and how they have felt defeated or deflated after that has happened,” Sims said. “How they’ve hit a wall because they didn’t get the position.”

Sometimes these women want to know how to be better prepared the next time a position comes open. But sometimes, Sims said, they’re battling bias, unconscious or otherwise.

“That story typically is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “I think that what happens with the entrepreneurship piece, some naturally have talents and skills to be that, and they desire that naturally, and then some use it as an opportunity to create the freedom they’re looking for in terms of being able to use their skill sets.”

Thomas said the companies surveyed get customized reports comparing their diversity efforts against others in their industries. “Because the real is that if you don’t fully see the problem and you don’t understand the problem, you can’t drive change.”

Sims said black women need to mentor each other and find people, sometimes outside of their managers, willing and able to groom them. And they have to recognize that sometimes, “all that preparation and being strategic doesn’t pay off. Navigating the workplace culture is more complex than people think,” and the specific ways that race and gender can play out, often “makes it a tough culture to crack.”

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.