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Kamala Harris makes history yet there are no black female Fortune 500 CEOs

January 31, 2021
Diversity & Inclusion

As much as we collectively extol Kamala Harris’ historic inauguration as the first woman and first Black and South Asian American to be elected Vice President of the United States, we should also recognize that seeing a Black woman ascend to the highest levels of leadership shouldn’t feel like a miracle…but it does. The truth is that today—on inauguration day—there are zero (not 5%, or very few or not as many as we’d like), but zero Black women leading Fortune 500 companies in America. That’s shameful. As shameful as it is, it’s arguably an accurate reflection of just how difficult it is for Black women to reach executive leadership.

While on one hand the minor miracle should elate all of us as it represents some level of realization of the ideals of America and who we’d like to be, on the other hand, we must also acknowledge the extreme rarity of her achievement. Just as Barack Obama’s election didn’t signal we’d instantly become a post-racial society—look no further than the recent Capitol Hill rioters’ confederate flags and noose for a fresh reminder—Kamala Harris’ remarkable election doesn’t in any way minimize or negate the herculean challenges facing Black women pursuing executive leadership roles in corporate America and beyond.

Facts don’t lie. Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns is the only Black woman to ever chair a Fortune 500 company in the list’s history. (In 2019 Mary Winston was named interim CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond for several months before the company appointed permanent CEO Mark Tritton—a white male.) If we start with the factual data—zero Black women CEOs—and analyze potential causes for this, I can only deduce four conceivable potential explanations:

Possible Explanation #1 – Black women don’t have sufficient representation in the workforce.

The 2019 Economic Policy Institute article “Black women’s labor market history reveals deep-seated race and gender discrimination” clearly refutes this notion. “Compared with other women in the United States, Black women have always had the highest levels of labor market participation regardless of age, marital status, or presence of children at home,” the article asserts. Obviously, Black women are and always have been well represented in the broader labor force. Where they’re typically not represented is in executive leadership.

Possible Explanation #2 – Black women are inherently less qualified.

Well, let’s start with the fact that assuming that any particular racial (or gender) group is inherently less qualified, capable or intelligent is clearly racist, sexist or just plain ignorant. You’d have to live under a rock not to know that Black women have consistently demonstrated their excellence in every walk of life. Kamala Harris isn’t a new example of Black female excellence—Susan Rice, Loretta Lynch, Stacey Abrams, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rimes, Gayle King, Valerie Jarrett, Rosalind Brewer, Mellody Hobson, Timnit Gebru, Katherine Johnson, Michelle Obama, Valerie Jarrett, Marsai Martin, Lena Waithe, Tarana Burke, Shirley Jackson, Jocelyn Elders, Misty Copeland, Amanda Gorman and London Breed are just a few of the names we know well—the list is virtually endless.

Possible Explanation #3 – Black women aren’t interested in senior level leadership roles.

Again, it’s racist (or sexist) to assume that there’s something inherent in any racial (or gender) group that would make them less ambitious or desirous of professional mobility and executive leadership responsibility and recognition. Lean In’s “The State of Black Women in Corporate America” report dispels the myth that Black women are somehow less ambitious. The 2020 report finds, “For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 58 Black women are promoted, despite the fact that Black women ask for promotions at the same rate as men.” In fact, the report explains that Black women’s ambition is in fact often discouraged. “Because we expect women to be kind and communal, women are often criticized as ‘overly ambitious’ or ‘out for themselves’ when they express a desire to lead,” the report explains. “For Black women, this ambition penalty can be compounded in some contexts by stereotypes that unfairly portray Black women as aggressive and angry.”

Possible Explanation #4 – Overwhelming, persistent race and gender discrimination severely disadvantage Black women and stunt their career trajectory….Bingo!

The State of Black Women in Corporate America report concludes, “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.” It further explains, “Black women are much less likely to be promoted to manager—and their representation dwindles from there.” In fact, the numbers are stark and undeniable when comparing Black women and white men in senior leadership roles. The report finds Black women to be severely underrepresented in senior leadership positions, capturing a meager 1.6% and 1.4% of VP and C-suite positions, respectively compared to 57% and 68% held by white men (even though Black women comprise 7.4% of the U.S. population and white men 35%). Beyond the problem of lacking representation in leadership roles, the report cites an array of additional challenges that Black women face including lack of support at work, less interaction with senior leaders, everyday discrimination (myth of the “angry Black woman,” microaggressions, often being “the only,” lack of ally support) and penalized ambition.

Indeed, there’s really no mystery when we ask ourselves the million-dollar question—why are there no black female CEOs in the Fortune 500? We know why. It’s simply a reflection of the broader societal caste system that Isabel Wilkerson artfully and painstakingly describes in her New York Times bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

Certainly, the election of the first Black and South Asian and first woman Vice President is an amazing victory for all of us. It represents progress, and we need more of that. As we revel in the imagery and symbolism of a Black female Vice President and the statement that it undoubtedly makes not just to Black America but to the world about who we are and what we value, the next question becomes When will we have the first Black female President of the United States? (After all that is the position Kamala Harris actually campaigned for, right?) While I certainly look forward to the election of a Black female President of the United States, I have to admit that what I crave even more is achieving a societal reality where it doesn’t feel like….a miracle.

by Dana Brownlee


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