Does Obama's Win Extend to Business?

12/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tim Berry Founder and Chairman, Palo Alto Software

I'm amazed at how optimistic I feel, giving how pessimistic I've been about the economy.

So, trying to get back into normal business mode, I discovered this last week on the Harvard Business Online's HBR Editors' Blog. Diane Coutu asks this question: Does Obama's Win Extend to Business? And her answer is troubling:

Harvard Business School professor David Thomas, an African American scholar who has written extensively on race and diversity, has expressed concern that some executives may assume from Obama's success that the race problem is solved, while huge disparities persist in corporate world.

Of course, some African-American CEOs run large companies, including Kenneth Chenault of American Express and John Thompson of Symantec, but the numbers are paltry. The dearth of black executives can be explained in part by the fact that, until fairly recently, talented African-Americans traditionally went into professions such as medicine and law rather than business. But the problem runs deeper than that. A great deal of psychology research shows that people in positions of power tend to promote folks who are like themselves. Since corporate America is still the domain of white men, African-Americans and other minorities are discriminated against either consciously or unconsciously.

Which reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, which includes some troubling research along the same lines. CEOs tend to be tall, male, and white. Overwhelmingly. And Coutu continues, in her post:

However huge the symbolic value of Obama's election for America, African-Americans will still have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden for managing their careers and for holding companies accountable with regard to diversity. That's not going to change anytime soon. "Most executives are married, so they hear about sexism at home," says Frank Dobbin, a Harvard sociologist who studies corporate diversity. "But many white executives don't have African-American friends, so they never get to hear first-hand about racism and its effects in the workplace." Without changing the relationship between whites and other minorities on this most basic level of community, there's little hope that the barriers to African-American representation in the workplace are going to go away anytime soon, Barack Obama's amazing victory notwithstanding.

They talk about coattails in terms of a popular candidate pulling other candidates with him. I hope this victory has coattails -- or whatever you'd call that -- in business too. Change is good.