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01/10/2018 02:20 pm ET

It’s Lonely At The Top For People Of Color In Corporate America -- And CEOs Know It

Fixing that will take some bold new ideas.

As a friend and ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, former “Apprentice” contestant Omarosa Manigault Newman may not represent the typical African-American voter. But in her former role as one of the president’s top advisers, she shared a common experience with people of color in leadership positions across corporate America: feeling “very lonely” among her mostly white, male colleagues.

“It has been very, very challenging being the only African-American woman in the [White House] senior staff,” Newman told ABC News’ “Nightline” in December, after she resigned (or was fired, depending on whom you ask) as director of communications at the Office of the Public Liaison.

Newman said some of her fellow staffers “had never worked with minorities” and “didn’t know how to interact with them.” (The White House, in response, says its senior staff is “really diverse.”) 

Omarosa Manigault Newman, seen here in June 2017, says she felt isolated as a woman of color in the Trump White House.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Omarosa Manigault Newman, seen here in June 2017, says she felt isolated as a woman of color in the Trump White House.

Despite decades of training programs designed to attract and retain a more diverse group of employees, corporate leadership ― i.e., the people who make decisions about a business’ policy, strategy and culture ― remains notoriously, stubbornly white and male. But recent signs indicate that at least some CEOs understand the current methods haven’t worked, and they’re increasingly embracing diversity and equality in bolder ways.

In 2017, hundreds of executives pledged to encourage open, and often difficult, conversations in the workplace, while others began work to eliminate gender stereotypes in advertising. Meanwhile, growing numbers of companies are choosing to speak out publicly on social justice and equality ― something that was unheard-of for decades.

Some see this growing trend as evidence of corporate leaders stepping into a role that government has left vacant.

“There’s a leadership vacuum in Washington,” Kristin Beck, a transgender activist and former Navy SEAL, told HuffPost, adding that it’s “immensely important” for companies to step up.

Inadequate representation in government can lead to discriminatory policies ― and companies are becoming increasingly vocal with their disapproval of such measures. For example, hundreds of businesses have taken a stand against various states’ efforts to ban trans people from using the public restrooms that best match their gender identity. Corporate pressure is credited with killing a proposed ban in Texas last year, and helping lead to the (albeit controversial) compromise that repealed an existing ban in North Carolina.

Additionally, big businesses have launched new efforts to ensure their office culture meets the same standards that leaders espouse publicly.

Last summer, roughly 300 CEOs ― from companies including Cisco, Dow Chemical, Home Depot, Target and Walmart ― joined the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, a pledge to create a safe workplace environment for dialogue, mitigate unconscious bias and share best (and worst) practices.

At the same time, the leadership at the multinational Unilever ― after conducting research in 2016 that found widespread gender stereotyping in ads ― is working to make its marketing campaigns non-sexist. It’s seen some positive results so far, indicating that socially conscious ads can be effective.

Unilever ― which owns more than 400 brands, from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to Dove soap ― in June broadened its efforts to scrub stereotypes from ads. It launched the Unstereotype Alliance, an attempt to create new standards across the ad industry, along with the UN Women initiative and corporate giants such as Johnson & Johnson, Mattel, Facebook, Google and Twitter. 

It may not seem like eliminating stereotypes in advertising would contribute directly to improving workplace diversity, but changing the way people are portrayed in media is a critical piece in the fight for gender equality, as UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka told HuffPost when the initiative launched. Many developed countries have fairly strong laws meant to prohibit gender discrimination, but laws aren’t enough, Mlambo-Ngcuka said. When stereotypes persist, they hold back progress.

“There’s the world everybody wants, and there’s the world where we are,” Procter & Gamble CEO David Taylor told HuffPost. 

Taylor has joined both the diversity and anti-stereotyping coalitions, and in August, his company released a new ad about racial biases. The commercial, called “The Talk,” featured black mothers from the ’50s to the present day speaking to their children about societal biases they must navigate as they grow up. Supporters praised the ad for its honest portrayal of African-American life, while detractors called it anti-white and anti-police.

“Some people got very offended because they believed we were vilifying the police. But we weren’t vilifying, we were reflecting,” Taylor said. “We’re not activists; we are a company trying to serve consumers. But we need to reflect the consumers we serve and be in touch with reality.”

Other executives have publicly challenged divisive and discriminatory policies crafted by the Trump administration. Early last year, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky went all in against the travel ban targeting majority-Muslim countries, tweeting persistent condemnations of the executive order and joining dozens of other tech execs who signed court documents opposing the measure. Airbnb also offered free housing for refugees and immigrants stranded at U.S. airports as a result of the travel ban, and it ran a Super Bowl ad that appeared to criticize the Trump administration’s hard-line stance on immigration.

Companies like Airbnb are no doubt hoping that decisive political stances on certain issues will make them money in long run. After all, millennials ― that is, Americans ages 18-36 ― are the largest, most diverse generation in the country, and they are known for seeking out brands and employers that align with their environmentally conscious and socially liberal values.

That applies to millennials as a workforce, as well. By 2020, this group will make up nearly half of America’s employees, and they want to work for companies whose values they share.

Still, large corporations overtly embracing equality and social justice is hardly a widespread phenomenon.

“Clearly, [social messaging] is a growing trend,” said Omar Vila Rodríguez, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business. “But that doesn’t mean the majority of companies are doing it.”

In research done in 2016, Rodríguez followed 30 brands posting a total of more than 10,000 times on Facebook. He found that roughly 7 percent of the posts had a social message, though it varied considerably by company.

For example, Patagonia, an outdoor-clothing maker that has long incorporated environmental issues into its mission (and that is now involved in an ongoing public spat with conservatives in the federal government), posted social commentary 40 percent of the time. For the vast majority of the other brands, social messaging represented less than 5 percent of posts, Rodríguez said.

“It is still considered a high-risk, uncertain-reward kind of investment,” he said of politically engaged posts. “There’s a lot of desire to consider it because of the belief that this is something millennials are looking for when making purchases. But it’s still not an easy thing for managers to do.”

It remains to be seen whether the outspokenness of a select few will result in real progress toward more diversity at the top of the corporate ladder. Companies certainly have their work cut out for them.

The number of African-American CEOs at Fortune 500 companies peaked at seven in 2007, while the number of Latinos in the top corporate post peaked at 13 in 2008. The retirement of Ken Chenault of American Express at the end of this month will leave just three black CEOs at America’s largest companies. Xerox’s Ursula Burns, who in 2009 became the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company, stepped down from her post in 2016, leaving no black women in this category.

Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, seen here in 2013, stepped down from her post in 2016.
Eduardo Munoz / Reuters
Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, seen here in 2013, stepped down from her post in 2016.

Yet there are ways of promoting diversity that actually work, according to Frank Dobbin, sociology professor at Harvard, and Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, who wrote an article on the subject for Harvard Business Review in 2016. These include voluntary diversity training as opposed to forced sessions, getting managers on board through college recruitment programs targeted to women and people of color, and formal mentoring for underrepresented groups.

Contact between groups and social accountability also seem to better promote diversity in the workplace, the researchers found.

But until the CEOs who claim to champion diversity follow through on their pledges to incorporate methods that work ― and until others join them ― the upper echelons of corporate America will likely remain a lonely place for women and people of color.

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