The intersection of being Black, female, and excellent in corporate America
Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a white male peer shortly after the announcement of his promotion to the executive ranks. Eager to congratulate him and pick his brain for pointers—assuming the strength of our past relationship made him an ally—I began peppering him with questions about his process of ascension with a childlike excitement and optimism. You know, the "we made it" kind of optimism. First mistake.
I thought that I'd naturally be able to follow in his footsteps as he continued his upward mobility. Since, he’d been promoted to an executive role in less than four years, I was especially hopeful about my own career trajectory. I naively assumed I'd be a shoe-in for his current role and that he'd naturally become my professional sponsor. Second mistake.
As we chatted, I shared my career plans and asked about his current role. And then it happened . . . he reminded me of who he was versus who I was. “Oh, you'll likely have a longer journey [than me]. You'll probably have to move again and you should probably take a business support role to prove yourself; and then maybe you'll be considered ‘ready’ for advancement. If I were you, I'd plan for 8-10 years.” Wait, what?!?! Visibly confused, I replied, but you did it in three and half years; to which he responded – wait for it – “well, don’t compare yourself to me.” Third mistake.
As I stood there in dumbfounded silence, I was heartbroken and enraged. What the hell did he mean, don’t compare yourself to him? Was he serious?!?! Here was a peer who I'd partnered with for almost two years – it was MY work ethic that largely contributed to him even getting a promotion – roughly the same age, mid-career, less educated, and of an average professional background telling me not to compare myself to him! No way he was serious, no way!
Yet, as much as I silently screamed bull$#!% in my mind, in my heart I knew he was right. Our executive ranks and C-suite reflected a negligible amount of women; especially not women of color. The few women in the top ranks had largely spent their entire careers – 20+ years – trying to shatter glass ceilings. So why on God's earth would I, an audacious, ambitious thirty-something millennial of color, think I'd actually make executive ranks at the same pace. My colleague, on the other hand, had a ton of examples and allies that were illustrative of the possibility that he could be fast-tracked.
Now, my coworker was a nice enough guy; up until our conversation he seemed ambitious and fair; yet, his white privilege was showing. His inability to see my "Black girl magic", to see me as an equal, to see me as a leader wasn't his fault, it was society’s ineptness.
In Dr. Avis Jones-Deweever’s book, How Exceptional Black Women Lead, she shares that, “despite the fact that we [Black women] are three times more likely than white women to aspire to professional leadership positions and more than two times more likely to serve as leaders in communities, we remain exceedingly rare at the top. With the benefit of neither whiteness nor womanhood on which to lean, our path to leadership is especially complex. More often than not, we end up carefully navigating shifting unwritten rules, doing our best to neutralize negative stereotypical assumptions, and making do with consistent, yet painful obvious exclusion from key professional networks.”
The leading derailment of achieving diversity and inclusion in the C-suite is putting the ‘I’ before the ‘D’. Sure, inclusion is important; but failing to recognize a lack of diversity is like leveraging a bet with no funds. When non-minority professionals say things like ‘what about us’ or ‘let’s just focus on inclusion’ or ‘diversity isn't just about protected class identification’, I really want to climb on a stage and Kanye them out of their Taylor Swift rise to the top. You know, Imma let you finish, but please hold your privilege while I acknowledge that Black women are still underrepresented and undervalued in corporate America. Truth is, if inclusion is like air, then exclusion is like suffocating slowly from smog.
Dr. Avis Jones Deweever went on to say that “. . . to be a Black woman is to exist in a constant state of navigation. Forever negotiating invisible pitfalls and challenges that others too often fail to see, or even acknowledge exist at all.” Like the time my mentor shared with me that a white, male executive had shared with her that while he found me to be incredibly smart there was a smugness about my disposition and body language that he didn't like and that someone should tell me to just fall back a little if I wanted to been seen as ‘leadership material’. [Insert eye roll here] Truth be told, he was a bully and I wasn't here for it. Being seen as ‘leadership material’ is white male code for "check yourself before you wreck yourself." The intersection of being Black, female, and excellent in corporate America is akin to a death by a thousand cuts—only the strong survive.
To be clear, this isn’t an attempt to pick on white men—throughout my professional journey, I’ve had many advocates of various ethnicities who have supported me, including white men—but more so to point out that the odds have never favored Black women. Leaning in doesn’t appear to be working for us.
Until recently, Ursula Burns for years was the only female black CEO for an S&P Fortune 500 company followed by Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Sam’s Club. With Ursula Burns stepping down in 2016 and Rosalind Brewer announcing her retirement in 2016, in the seemingly blink of an eye the era of black female CEOs in corporate America came to an end.
If I am being honest, I never really had interest in the C-suite until the world said I didn’t belong there. Stats would suggest that there's a strong probability that joining the ranks of C-level executives will prove elusive for me, but I assure you that won’t stop me from trying. In the words of California Rep. Maxine Waters, “I am a strong black woman. I can not be intimidated and I am not going anywhere.” #BlackWomenAtWork