Uncovering The Leadership Potential Of Black Women

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We can now look back on more than 40 years of affirmative action and ensuing diversity programs and we see that businesses still don’t get it – or us. We are still at the center of the debate over race and gender barriers and the cost to Black women is a tab we are no longer willing to pay. Consequently, we are leaving companies at such an escalating rate that the phenomenon has been deemed a bona fide retention, recruitment and engagement concern.

Companies need to know much more about how to recruit, retain and engage us. As our lives as professional Black women in America have been understudied and our contributions as leaders often undervalued, the League of Black Women (LBW) conducted its “LBW Having Our Say: Fostering the Leadership Potential of Black Women in America Survey” to help identify and eliminate the challenges Black women face as they strive to fulfill their leadership potential and achieve socio-economic parity for themselves, their families and their communities.

“I’m now looking for inspiration to move me closer to getting in on multi-million dollar projects. When I first started working, I had a mentor who helped me understand all those forms, figure out the rules. I’ve learned all that. Now it’s time to find someone who can help me go after the big money.” – Grace

The report includes an assessment of the key barriers to Black women realizing their leadership potential; recommendations for how corporations can remove those barriers and support retention; and personal accounts of professional Black women striving to rise to leadership positions despite the odds. The data found only 20 percent of Black women are “very satisfied” with their overall lives, and respondents reported greater and more pervasive degrees of frustration with advancing in their careers.

“ To find a company of White employees, where I could sit and talk to any one of them on any given day and share a success or challenge and feel like they understand is pretty unfathomable. If I transitioned back to a White firm, I would probably question my skills and censor my words a whole lot more. I imagine being extra careful about what I say and how I say it and always being prepared to defend myself professionally. (In that kind of environment) it wouldn’t take too much for me to begin looking for work elsewhere.” Kenya

The League of Black Women is committed to supporting and developing leadership values and joyful living for the 21st century Black woman. With this report we provide essential support and timely advice to corporations on specific methods and recommendations to recruit, retain and empower Black women as leaders. By implementing our suggested strategies, we believe companies can improve their efforts toward achieving greater workforce diversity.”

“My manager, a Black woman, positioned me for my current job. She pushed me out in the forefront, allowed me to communicate with folks at her level so that when I went for the position, they knew me. She showed me how to behave like a professional but still be assertive – and how to make my point and still be respected. It was so refreshing to have a sister I was reporting to who had no hang-ups or didn’t feel threatened by me – Jasmine

Critical Factors for Develop Black Women Leaders

The nationwide survey, conducted between 2005 and 2007 in partnership with Booz Allen Hamilton, was designed to gather preliminary data on Black women’s views about their leadership experiences and satisfaction with their lives.  The report highlights three key findings identified as critical factors that influence the level of satisfaction Black women obtain in their professional and personal lives. Among the factors include Engagement, defined asinstitutions and people that have the greatest impact on Black women’s lives; Cohesion,the quality of Black women’s relationships with each other; and Bicultural Leadership, used to describe circumstances in which Black women lead or exude authority over non-Blacks in the workplace. Some specific factors of Engagement, Cohesion and Bicultural Leadership that affect and hinder the overall professional development, advancement and retention of Black women in the workplace include:

Engagement

  • Under-representation of Black women within an organization diminishes essential networking power
  • Pressure to hide authentic personal style and professional perspective results in exhaustion (affects productivity)

Cohesion

  • Limited professional options that impede Black women from having close relationships with each other in corporate environments
  • Black women are more committed to their organizations when they are able to form close bonds with other Black women

Bicultural Leadership

  • Proven leadership ability doesn’t reliably translate into promotion opportunities
  • Under-utilization of education and skill set relegates Black women to lower-level jobs

Although Black women report they hope to reach their goal of rising to leadership positions, they believe hard work and positive thinking are not enough to obtain the opportunities they seek.

Mary worked as a secretary for a large company. At night, she went to college and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Despite her educational attainments, she was unable to move out of her secretarial job and advance to a higher level position. While she received assurances from her human resources representative that her time would come, she still wasn’t able to advance. To break out of her situation, she left corporate America and is now working in a professional job at a nonprofit agency.

How Corporations Can Help Develop Black Women Leaders

To ensure Black women have the tools needed to advance, the report suggests corporations need to design distinctive and targeted strategies to develop and advance Black women with high potential. Given the limited number of Black women as contemporary role models, companies must understand the real time experiences of Black women who aspire to obtain corporate leadership jobs and work to provide effective assistance.  To combat and address these issues, The League of Black Women recommends corporate leaders promote the concepts of Engagement, Cohesion and Bicultural Leadership in the following ways to support development and retention:

Engagement

  • Foster a culture of inclusion that addresses the needs of Black women as defined by Black women
  • Implement policies and practices that respect the need for communal support within and beyond the workplace

Cohesion

  • Create coaching resources, mentoring programs, networking opportunities and affinity groups for women of color
  • Appreciate cultural and style differences without censure

Bicultural Leadership

  • Provide early leadership coaching to help Black women successfully confront negative stereotypes
  • Recognize and develop Black women’s distinctive leadership skills
  • Identify and end business practices that steer Black women with high potential into dead-end jobs

Countering Bias & Stigmas

According to the study, Black women still see negative perceptions about race as a barrier keeping them from reaching their career goals. As professionals, they believe that others’ negative views of them in the workplace hinder their ability to excel in leadership roles.  Nearly 80 percent surveyed cited race bias as a hurdle affecting their effectiveness as leaders, to some extent.  Respondents said race bias affects interactions with individuals who potentially could influence and advance their career track. Additionally, the report suggests, Black women find themselves stagnant in mid and lower level positions that are threatened by corporate downsizing, mergers and acquisitions that cause retention rates of Black women to drop.

Claudette is from the Bahamas. In her country, she was an associate comptroller for a large international hotel chain. Once in America, she could not land the same type of position. Instead, she was given a job with a fancy title – senior operations specialist. In reality, she was doing low level processing. She lost this position when her company downsized, but was able to get a better job commensurate with her abilities that emphasized her accounting experience.

But despite the overlapping obstacles Black women face on their climb up the corporate ladder, the League of Black Women believes if corporations empower Black women, their strengths and leadership abilities can be leveraged to help increase company performance and expand business growth.

For more information on The League of Black Women and how to obtain the “Fostering the Leadership Potential of Black Women in America Survey,” please visit www.leagueofBlackwomen.org.

About The League of Black Women

The League of Black Women (LBW), founded in 1970, is a nonprofit organization that provides access to strategic support for developing and sustaining leadership values and joyful living for Black women.  LBW seeks to ensure that Black women emerge as distinctive leaders who contribute to the substantial and lasting improvements that shape our world.

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