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Black Women Face Hurdles In Corporate America


First Posted: 07/07/11 01:46 PM ET Updated: 08/29/11 06:12 AM ET

When you don't get the return on your investment that you expect, year after year, after year, at some point you call it quits.

Perhaps it's not surprising then, that black women are leaving corporate America and starting their own businesses at three-to-five times the rate of all businesses. Today, some 1.9 million firms are majority-owned (51% or more) by women of color in the U.S. and these ladies employ 1.2 million people and generate $165 billion in revenues annually, according to the Center for Women's Business Research.

Black women in corporate America take risks and come up pretty much empty handed when the rewards are passed around, sums up the new survey, Risk and Reward conducted by the League of Black Women Global Research Institute, in partnership with Deloitte and DePaul University.

The numbers speak for themselves. According to the report, professional black women make up only one percent of U.S. corporate officers, despite the fact that 75 percent of corporate executives believe that having minorities in senior level positions enables innovation and better serves a diverse customer base. Black women held just 1.9% of board seats in the Fortune 500 compared to 12.7% for white women, according to the 2010 Alliance for Board Diversity Census, Missing Pieces: Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards.

Black women handled their business. They took on new assignments, gave 100 percent, asked for larger salaries, changed to new careers, went back to school on a full-time basis and then some. But they say all that wasn't good enough. The promise of leadership opportunity has largely been unfulfilled. Despite decades-long affirmative action, and all the diversity, racial and gender inclusion efforts of corporations, nearly half of the 350 women surveyed said they have not received the rewards and recognition they should have earned for their risk investment. At this point in their careers, 49 percent said they are behind in their expectations.

The dissatisfaction is primarily about pay, power and position: not getting paid what they are worth, the lack of black women in positions of power and a lack of resources and opportunities to pursue their goals. Negative stereotypes toward black women and the stress of having to play numerous roles rounded out the top five factors that black women say are barriers to professional and personal well being. The report dispels the myth that black women are afraid of risk. "We are not risk adverse, but risk weary," says Shawn Taylor, co-author of the report and a consultant for the League of Black Women.

"For as long as we have been striving we haven't come very far, and we haven't progressed like others," adds Sandra Finley, president and CEO of League of Black Women.

Truth is, racism still exists, whether it is subtle or in-your-face. "Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox is the exception," says Ellen Grant, a social worker and president of First Advantage Consulting, a behavioral and wellness coaching firm. "It's easier for a white CEO to take a white man or white woman, who he identifies with because he thinks of his daughter, under his wing," she adds.

The ramifications are huge. "When we don't earn what we deserve, when we don't get those bonuses, that means we stay broke, live paycheck to paycheck. We aren't desperately scrambling because we don't work hard, it's that we aren't fairly compensated and society seems okay with it," says Finley. And of much concern is the stress, "Black women's numbers are off the charts for sicknesses that kill us," adds Taylor.

MAKING SENSE OF THE SENSELESS

"We have been the newcomers in the corporate ranks and have dutifully played the game. At times we've been marginalized in spite of strong performance. We've been invisible and inaudible, in spite of being striking, articulate, prepared, poised and unemotional. Some of us are risking never going back to the corporate world because we have found other platforms from which to deploy our gifts," says Ginny Clarke, author of Career Mapping, Charting Your Course and founder of Talent Optimization Partners, a corporate consulting and executive coaching service company.

"I left Spencer Stuart after 12 years, not because I was angry or pushed, but because I realized I couldn't do what I wanted for myself and others being there," says Clarke, who adds that there continues to be a double standard. "The subtle presumption is that we are 'happy to be there' and will accept whatever is offered. If we are single (with or without children), we can't need as much as a married man with children. If we are married, we likely have dual incomes, so again, we don't need the same level of compensation as our white male counterparts," she says.

Furthermore, many black women are first generation corporate. "Our mothers might have worked, even as professionals, but not likely in a corporate setting. Consequently, we don't have the same exposure, awareness, confidence or executive intelligence on matters of corporate compensation, politics, etc. We also often don't know our value and won't ask for fair remuneration for it. We get dazzled and flattered by big numbers and lofty titles and sometime fail to question these offerings relative to our male counterparts," says Clarke. In contrast, some white, female counterparts have fathers and other male relatives who were in the corporate world and could advise on advancement strategies, she adds.

WHAT NOW?

The question then, is where do black women go from here? The report offers a few suggestions -- establish a powerful, diverse and trusted network of sponsors and advisors to help evaluate the risk in opportunity; evaluate the strength of strategic relationships and rethink how they recruit the people who support their ambitions; be clear and firm in communicating expectations of support for risk taking, rewards and recognition.

Clarke adds to that advice, "Get grounded in a particular functional expertise and ask for and take stretch assignments, especially international ones. Even if you don't stay with the company, which provided the experience, you have invaluable, portable skills and competencies."

Know too, that all risks are not created equal. "Taking on a struggling business unit in a remote location may not produce the same level of rewards as launching a costs saving initiative. It is important to understand the risk that is being taken and ensure you can create the support needed to be successful," says Mary Hladio, president of consulting firm Ember Carriers.

Never admit failure. "If you don't receive an expected reward then look for new opportunities. Regardless of gender or race, doing a great job consistently will eventually win. If not for this role or company, then another. There is still a war for talent and your efforts will be appreciated," she adds.

As for corporations, the report, among other things, calls for immediate and deliberate diversification of corporate boards by appointing black women. Finley is firm, "No more analysis paralysis. It's time to end the chatter and to move to action. We are out of time. Everything is falling down and being rebuilt." She wants that new landscape to be where black women are first and not "next" on the agenda.

"What I would not recommend is companies creating some committee and forcing the issue. Take an internal look at the informal networks that exist. Do leaders rely too heavily on the word of another person when making promotions. Seek out talent beyond the normal networks. Reward risks taken by minorities and understand that the risk could have been far greater then what is reflected on the surface," says Hladio.

Lastly, says Finley, "When we look at the risk and reward for black women in corporate America, what's been the yield? It's been an underperforming stock."

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