Where Are All the Black Women CEOs?

Before she made history in corporate America, Ursula Burns was a little girl being raised by her mother in the public housing projects of New York City. 

“Many people told me I had three strikes against me,” she recalled in a post for Lean In, an organization co-founded by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. Those strikes, Burns wrote, were that “I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor.” But in 2009, the year America swore in its first Black president, Barack Obama, Burns proved those naysayers wronge by becoming CEO at Xerox and placing her mark on history as the first Black woman to become the chief executive officer of an S&P 500 company.

But despite shattering that highest of glass ceilings in corporate America, Burns is only one of two Black women to wield executive power in the history of the S&P 500, the country’s largest publicly traded companies. Disturbingly, however, there is currently no Black women serving at the helm among them, and there is mounting evidence that the reasons have more to do with America’s dark history than with the supply of talent to potentially fill those roles.

For Burns, the tragedy of this is not just for Black women, but also businesses.
Where Are All the Black Women CEOs?
“Another generation kind of goes by the wayside of people who can be helpful, who can increase shareholder value, who can represent the stakeholders and create a just corporate America,” Burns said in an CNN interview earlier this year, after the death of George Floyd sparked a racial reckoning around the country and inside companies. In one exchange, the host told Burns that there are currently four Black CEOs among the Fortune 500 companies, to which Burns replied, “And zero of those four are women.”

Yet, studies show that women have not only been running businesses for a long time, they have been excelling at it. One conducted by American Express last year noted that Black women owned some 2.7 million businesses last year, which represented about 20% of all women-owned businesses. It further found that Black women have been growing their businesses at rates greater than the average for all women-owned businesses.

And when it comes to women of color, who are “starting tech companies with the potential of scaling to become unicorns” and “opening local storefronts, joining the gig economy as contractors and everything in between,” the study noted that “African American/ Black women are leading the charge.”

What they are not given the opportunity to lead, however, are America’s biggest companies, a point underscored recently by a CNBC anchor, in a tweet, by reminding the business news consumers, corporate executives and Wall Street types who follow her that only two Black women have ever served as chief executive officers for an S&P 500 company.

The other Black woman in that role was Mary Winston, who briefly served as interim CEO at Bed, Bath and Beyond last year, before being succeeded by Mark Tritton, a white man. Winston described to Bloomberg this month the pressure that weighs on the few Black women who have made it to the top. “You have an added burden to succeed,” she said, because “if you don’t, you know there won’t be another one like you for many years to come.”

The potential talent pool of Black women for the top job, of course, is not just confined to business owners. Burns, after all, didn’t own her own business. She was an executive, a position now held by possibly hundreds of thousands of Black women, according to research by Black Demographic, sourcing U.S. Census Bureau data. As of 2017, some one million of Black women were filling management roles or business and financial operation occupations, and almost three-quarter of a million of them were in legal occupations.

So the picture begins to crystalize that the issue is not so much about experience. And, researchers found, it’s not about educational achievement, either.

In 2018, the Washington Post published a Harvard Business Review study that found that even among the school’s elite business graduate program, “only 13% of black female Harvard MBAs over the last 40 years have reached the senior-most executive ranks,” compared to “40% of non-African-American Harvard MBA degree holders who reach those top ranks.”

This year, Lean In published a study called “The State of Black Women in Corporate America,” and it found that the workplace is worse for Black women. The study saw the “same general pattern” emerge for them: “Women are having a worse experience than men. Women of color are having a worse experience than white women. And Black women in particular are having the worst experience of all.” One such experience, for example, is that Black women find themselves “severely underrepresented” in leadership roles. One of the problems causing this, according to the findings, is that Black women are much less likely to be promoted to manager, despite the fact that they ask for promotions at the same rate as men: for every 100 men who get promoted to manager, only 58 Black women are promoted. (And for every 100 men hired into manager roles, only 64 Black women are hired, which itself could be impacted by studies that show white-sounding names on résumés get 50% more callbacks than Black-sounding ones, like one published in 2004 called “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.”) Filling manager roles is significant for Black women, the study argued, because after their representation “dwindles from there.”

Another study published in that same Washington Post article appears to support this, finding that a mere 1.3% of executives and senior-level managers in S&P 500 companies are Black women, the lowest representation compared to other women of color and, especially, to white women.

Burns, with a master’s degree from an Ivy League under her belt, was working as an executive assistant to a senior Xerox executive, “a developmental role for high-potential employees,” Ann Mulcahy, a white woman who met Burns at Xerox in the early-1990s, recalled in a piece for HBR. Mulcahy would eventually climb the corporate ladder there and, in 2001, land the role of CEO. As chief executive, Mulcahy said she gave Burns greater responsibilities, had regular conversations about her progress, and “made sure she had a lot of visibility in the boardroom.”

Mulcahy, it turns out, was ensuring Burns would not be held back by the barriers that the Lean In study found Black women are facing today, among them: less likely to interact with senior leaders and less likely to get the support and the access they need to advance. And, for her part, Burns was clear with Mulcahy she wanted her job. “If I wasn’t giving Ursula the assurance she needed, she’d be frank about wanting to be told ‘You’re on track,’ which meant ‘You’re a really good candidate for CEO,’” Mulcahy recalled.

Today, as corporate America, which Burns described to CNN as “generally white compatriots,” are being confronted by racial inequality, many of those compatriots are turning to her for advice. There have been times she said she “could be on the phone all day speaking to CEOs.” But the conversations leave her tempering her optimism. “After every call I feel a little bit” — she paused for a moment, bringing her index fingers together to her lips, appearing to carefully choose her next word — “concerned.” The feeling seemed to stem from a parallel she drew between her calls with white executives and America’s racist history. “It’s almost like speaking to the slaves who were slaves back then and saying, ‘Can you tell me how to undo slavery?’”

So where are all the Black women CEOs? The research, data and anecdotal evidence show that the talent pool for those roles is covered, out-of-sight and weighed down by the heavy sheet of systemic racism in the workplace. But they are out there. And, despite the extra challenges they may face, research even shows that they are ready to lead.

“Black women are substantially more likely than white women — and just as likely as white men — to say that they are interested in becoming top executives,” according to the research done by Lean In, adding that “they know how hard it can be for women of color to advance at work, and they want to help change that.”

As motivated as Black women are to want to influence work culture, however, Burns believes that the power for greatest and most immediate changes rests in the hands of white corporate America, and not the few Black executives or managers on the corporate ladder.

“You are the architects and beneficiaries of a system today that you can undo — you can undo it 10, 50 times more than we can,” stressed Burns. “But you have to be a part of the conversation, and lead the conversation.”
Where Are All the Black Women CEOs?

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