Women have been talking about breaking the glass ceiling for decades, but a look at Fortune 500s 2017 list of most powerful women in business has led the magazine’s editors to coin another term – the Black Ceiling. This year’s list has just one African American female, with one more just missing the list and identified as on the mags “radar.”
The lack of black women in top jobs stands out particularly because of recent gains by women in the Corporate-suite. When the company published its Fortune 500 list this summer, there were a record 32 women in CEO jobs, up from 21 in 2016.
At long last, it appeared cracks are beginning to form in the glass ceiling. But for African–American women a barrier remains in place.
The sole Black CEO on the list had been Ursula Barnes, who left the list after retiring as CEO of Xerox at the end of 2016. Burns’ appointment to the top job in 2009 had been hailed as a milestone. Suddenly it looked more like an anomaly.
The possibility of replacing Barnes on the list doesn’t bode well either. There are few African-American in the pipeline to the C-Suite. In fact, Black women make up just 2% of middle managers, the pipeline that feeds the C-Suite.
In a Fortune Magazine article, Burns, 59 and an engineer by training, ticked off reasons that other African-American women haven’t
Even with Black women graduating from college in record numbers, “not enough are coming out of the education system to get them all the way through to the C-suite,” says Burns. And the Black women who do make it often end up in support positions rather than the operational roles that lead to CEO jobs. “HR isn’t going to get you there,” she says. “Communications and the arts aren’t going to get you there.” The juice lies with people who are close to the product and the money. “So, now look at the numbers of women we have now. Unless you’re bringing people in from Mars, it’s going to be a while.”
Beyond the points cited by Burns, the ceiling is composed of several complex socioeconomic factors. Black women are at a disadvantage in trying to bridge the familiarity gap with White men in positions of power, because in the words of talent management research firm Catalyst, they are “double outsiders”: They’re neither White, nor men. As a result they’re often shut out from the informal networks that help other people find jobs, mentors, and sponsors.
But the research, which is drawn from a large group of survey respondents Catalyst has tracked for years, also shows that Black women often grow demoralized in the workplace. They report environments that they feel continually overlook their credentials, diminish their accomplishments, and pile on cultural slights—about their hair, appearance, even their parenting skills. And they often have fraught relationships with White women, who tend to take the lead on issues of women and diversity. “This is what we call an ‘emotional tax,’” says Dnika J. Travis, an executive and researcher at the Catalyst Research Center for Corporate Practice. “The burden of being on guard all the time affects our lives in really negative ways.”
What’s more, Black women don’t always have a lot of wiggle room for uncertainty. Data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve shows that the typical Black family has about $11,000 in net worth compared with $134,000 for White families, $91,000 for Asian families, and $14,000 for Hispanic families. Furthermore, between 1992 and 2013, college-educated Whites saw their wealth grow 86% while college-educated Blacks saw theirs plummet by 55%. This only adds to the stress of Black professional women who are often focused on maintaining equilibrium at home and in their communities.
Making sure qualified Black women make it through the corporate gauntlet to the upper ranks requires serious efforts in hiring, mentoring, sponsorship, and development. Expecting a company to address biases that are unique to Black women is