Harvard’s Just the Start: A Call For Black Female Leaders

Published: Feb 1, 2023  |  

Business Executive & Public Voices Fellow at OpEd Project

Illustration by Sarameeya Aree

Harvard University will make history this year when Claudine Gay is sworn in as the 30th president—and first Black female president—of the nation’s oldest college. 

Gay’s ascension is worthy of celebration. However, it should also compel serious examination into what accounts for such minimal representation of Black women in prominent leadership positions. 

At the beginning of 2020, only 37 women held a CEO position in Fortune 500 companies and none of them were Black. As the year unfolded, two Black women—Rosalind Brewer and Thasunda Duckett— were named CEOs of Walgreens Boots Alliance and TIAA, respectively. Their appointments ended a void of nearly four years with no Black women at the helm since Ursula Burns, the first-ever Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, stepped down from Xerox in 2016

There is a common misperception that the diversity pipeline is sparse, and that it is difficult to find qualified, diverse talent to fill critical organizational roles. Not long ago, I attended a luncheon featuring an esteemed panel speaking on issues of female diversity. One of the panelists was a partner at an elite law firm who offered that his firm would be happy to hire diverse female lawyers… if only they could find them. 

This is a straw man argument. Women of color account for 25% of law firm summer associates—students who are typically recruited by law firms. Yet fewer than 1% of law firm partners are Black women, which suggests that retention of talent, versus acquisition of talent, is the key issue. This problem plays out across industries.

Another oft-cited reason for a lack of Black women CEOs is that Black women tend to gravitate toward staff roles versus line roles that better prepare one for CEO ascension. While it is true that a preponderance of Black women are situated in staff roles, the overall low incidence of Black women in line roles can be attributed to the significant difficulty that women experience in obtaining developmental assignments that prepare them to assume higher level roles. According to one study of female and male executive paths, development for men was more likely to be “other-initiated” or given to them. Conversely, women must self-initiate and be more proactive in seeking experiences for their advancement.

This needs to change.

America’s demographics are shifting to a multicultural majority faster than anticipated. It is now projected that there will be a minority-majority population by 2045. As we look toward the future, industries that lack diversity representation within their executive ranks will do so at their own peril. 

However, an even more compelling case for diversifying executive teams exists. According to McKinsey, companies with 30% or more women on their executive teams are more likely to outperform those with less or no women executives. Furthermore, top quartile companies with ethnic diversity have been shown to outperform companies in the fourth quartile by 36% in terms of profitability. 

The talent pipeline of Black women is full of individuals who are well-educated, experienced, and motivated to move up the organizational ladder. Compared with other women, Black women have the highest labor force participation rate. According to the Department of Labor statistics in 2021, Black women’s labor force participation rate was 60.5% compared with 56.8% for White women. Even in the midst of the 2020 pandemic, Black women’s labor participation rate was higher—58.8%, compared to 56.2% for women overall.  

The statistics also show Black women’s advances in education. Black women are becoming the most educated group in the U.S. as they have begun to outpace other groups in earning degrees. Despite the fact that Black women only account for 12.7% of the female population in the country, they account for over 50% of the Black people who receive post-secondary degrees. On a percentage basis, Black women currently outpace White women, Latinas, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans with respect to educational attainment.

So, if labor availability and educational achievement are not lacking among Black women, what accounts for the fact that women of color—and Black women in particular—are severely underrepresented at executive levels? 

For the most part, the answer lies in personal characteristics—race and gender—over which Black women have no control. The vast majority of Fortune 500 CEOs have been and currently are White males, which makes a Black woman CEO anomalous against this backdrop. As a result, there is no apparent basis for connection or relatability with those in power, which is often an important indicator for who gets favored. 

The similarity-attraction paradigm is a phenomenon that suggests that the more similar an individual perceives another to be like himself, the greater the chance of liking and engagement. Liking and engagement facilitate important aspects of career advancement, such as inclusion in networks, mentoring, and access to different types of development. Data indicates that the intersection of race and gender may force some Black women into “out-group” status, making their inclusion in networks less possible than for their Black male and White female and male counterparts.

Over the course of my career as a senior human resources professional, I have witnessed the similarity-attraction paradigm frequently play out in organizations where leaders leaned toward those who offered a familiar and comfortable profile. However, I have also had the good personal fortune to have leaders with different profiles in terms of race, gender, and backgrounds who provided mentoring, development, and sponsorship to enable my career growth and success.

Black women have long been a critical segment in the American labor force. Yet their talent and professional contributions have largely been under-recognized and under-rewarded as a result of factors beyond their influence and control. The quest to improve diversity representation based on business imperatives is decades old, and quite frankly, there is little to show for it. 

If firms are truly interested and invested in diversifying their workplaces, they must do so from the top down. An area of critical focus must be Black executive women—who are lacking in neither availability, motivation, education, nor experience. The only thing lacking is the imagination and genuine intention on the part of organizations to expand the boundaries of leadership and who gets selected to enter the top ranks.

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