Has the Glass Ceiling Really Been Shattered?
Robyn D. Clarke
A few African Americans have finally made it to the top. But can others now reach for the sky?
You know you’re “black” in corporate America when … you’ve worked for the company for over two years. During a meeting with your boss you express a desire to pursue a higher level position you’ve been preparing for all along. Your boss says, “Do you think you are ready for such responsibilities?”
–Deborah A. Watts, 101 Ways to Know You’re “Black” in Corporate America
ASK MOST AFRICAN AMERICANS WHO HAVE RISEN THROUGH the corporate ranks about their experiences, and anecdotes like these are sure to pop up frequently. Even our newest business leaders–Lloyd Ward, Barry Rand, John Thompson, Franklin Raines, Kenneth Chenault, and those CEOs of smaller majority corporations–have endured their share of overt discrimination, subtle quips about perceived qualifications and capabilities and initial exclusion from certain business circles, all based solely on skin color. True, these few–to their credit and undoubtedly to that of those who paved the way in years past–have made it to the top. But has the corporate climate really evolved to the point where all who aspire to the upper echelons of management–regardless of race and gender–are able to get there?
To find the answer, and the real deal on other issues facing African Americans in the private sector, we assembled the heads of various black organizations representing the professional interests of a significant group of African Americans vital to the American workforce and economy. As representatives of their organizations–not the corporations for which they work–they came prepared to speak openly and honestly on this highly charged subject.
Present at the meeting were BLACK ENTERPRISE Corporate Affairs Editor Marjorie Whigham-Desir; BE Associate Editor Robyn D. Clarke; Dr. Martin N. Davidson, professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia; Michael Mobley, chairman of the National Black MBA Association; Rodney O. Buie, president and CEO of the Alliance of Black Telecommunications Employees Inc.; Faye Mitchell Moore, National Association of Black Accountants; Charles Walker, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers; Gerald Reed, president of Blacks in Government; Renee McClure, president of the Black Data Processors Association; and Deborah A. Watts, author of 101 Ways to Know You’re “Black” in Corporate America and president of Watts-Five Productions, a marketing consulting company.
MARJORIE WHIGHAM-DESIR: The question is, has the glass ceiling really been shattered? Has the corporate environment really changed? Your various organizations represent, study or consult with people within those environments. There are African Americans who have moved up–we’ve got a couple who are now CEOs of companies, others who are presidents or CFOs, even chief information officers–but are we there yet?
If we aren’t, then what has to be done? If there’s a crack, then how do we force it open so more people can come through? What is it that we have to do to get there? In the new millennium what is the plan that we [are putting] forward?
MARTIN DAVIDSON: I’m going to talk about some of the key points of the [study] that I did [in] trying to understand the experiences [of] African American managers in corporate America. What were the critical experiences they had in terms of their progression as managers, and which one seemed to determine or lead to success, in that respect? What were some of the big blocks, the big barriers, they went through?
Essentially we found the following critical points: black folks in the organizations weren’t getting the assignments at the same rate that white managers were getting the assignments. The fact is clearly that some African American managers simply weren’t getting the opportunities. Another [aspect] of it was that [highly talented] African American managers who were coming through oftentimes were being held [back] by usually white superiors. Although [their skills were] acknowledged, they were held up from advancement as these [white] managers wanted to keep them in tow, wanted to keep them as part of their organizations. In a sense, to keep them on the plantation.
Another issue is that of rote-slotting. Not only are there certain roles that seem to be more “appropriate” for African Americans, but that they tended to be not directly on business lines. They tended to be support type positions.
What is core, in terms of moving up through an organization, developing to the top and breaking through the crack, [is that] you have to be in line. [In] these organizations, you have to be doing what is the work of the business, what is the core of the business.
If you’re in support positions, you’re only going to be able to go so far and that’s clear. So, we see this clear role-slotting that has the [effect] of putting African Americans in less than line positions.
Lastly we found that African American men in many of these organizations experienced a tremendous amount of social isolation.
MICHAEL MOBLEY: One of the challenges we [face] is that every assignment that is presented is not appropriate for us. It’s easier to say we want to put you in an assignment to round you out, that will broaden your experiences and all that sort of thing and you’re right. It puts you on the sideline and wants you to carry everybody else’s water and it becomes tough to get back in. The key, though, is you have to have the strength of character and the presence of mind and hopefully the support, somewhere else in the organization, to say no, I don’t want to do that. One of the things I think we need to do is be able to say no to a situation that we know is not going to be right for us and [that] puts us on that sideline.
FAYE MITCHELL MOORE: [We have to be careful to not] emphasize one track when it doesn’t work for everyone. We’ve got to know ourselves enough to know which track applies to us, as individuals.
DESIR: Is that one of the strategies we must consider?
MOBLEY: First [you should] have a plan and be flexible enough to vary from that plan if it doesn’t go correctly, so that you can get back on track. You also need to be clear about what assignments are going to help you and understand that, in many cases, the person who wants you to do something else has an agenda. You have to figure out whether that agenda is supportive of what you want to do or not supportive of what you want to do. So, you have to make career decisions along the way. Oftentimes, that means saying no to something.
DEBORAH WATTS: When you have a parallel, in terms of [a] career path, with a person who happens to be your manager, supervisor, director, I think that is the issue. There is something that happens when your sights are set perhaps higher or in different areas. There is a sense [that] support [is lacking].
Several years ago I had the foresight to develop my own five-year career plan. The question that was asked of me was, “Deborah, do you believe that you can walk on water?” I said, well, given the right tools, yes. He said, “Let me ask you another question. If there was a tightrope that was about 15-feet high and you were asked to walk [it], would you do it if, at the end, [there was] something you desired?” I said, absolutely. He said, “That’s the problem with you. Some people don’t realize that they will never be able to do something that is probably impossible.
“You need to go back, revisit your plan, rewrite it and be more realistic.” That was [an] entry-level position. I wasn’t seeking a president’s job or a vice president’s position. I was definitely in the game, if you will, but I think that’s a phenomenon, that is an issue that can stunt the growth [of any career].
MOBLEY: Ultimately, we have to go toward those line positions to make the money. I have a friend who just retired as president of a company in Connecticut. He had staff jobs until he was in his 40s. Within seven years of taking a line job, he was named president of this company. Not only the first African American but the first non-family president of this company. Over a four-year period, he increased shareholder wealth on an average, annual basis by about 20 percent.
DESIR: How did he make the switch? Do you have to be “blessed” in order to move?
MOBLEY: He moved from a strategic planning position–this is with another company–to running the smallest division of that company, a division that had labor problems and was suffering red ink tremendously. It was not a plum assignment at all [but] he turned that division around [and moved] on to a larger division and then [the] headhunters began to call. Then he went to this other firm.
He ran their largest division. Then they gave him the two largest divisions to run and after that, they told him, if you keep this up, you’re on track. He made it. [He] proved he could do an assignment where, quite frankly, they expected him to fail. He turned it around, did well and kept moving up because his results were unmatched in the company.
DAVIDSON: One of the trends that we see is going to the corporation just so you can get your training so that you can get out and do your own thing. The whole idea of the individual career as the career of a free agent, essentially, not as a corporate person but as a free agent, is of one who either moves in through corporations or incorporates himself. [This] essentially creates wealth and some sense of professional satisfaction.
WATTS: I think the question is how many of you want to be Ken Chenault? Is that the ultimate or is that where you’re heading? Is that your desire? Is it the attributes or the perks, or what is the view of what that all means? Are any of those pieces things that you desire?
CHARLES WALKER: I think there is [also another] phenomenon. It’s can we actually conceive it? We see him up there but, basically, two out of 500 is still zero.
MOBLEY: There are some people who have this particular job [and] don’t want to do anything else. Aspirations are as diverse as anything else. The real key is, for those who aspire to a level of Ken Chenault, is the opportunity clear, manageable and supportive [enough] for them to do that?
WATTS: I think we look at those who have made it, and we all have examples of individuals [who] have done certain things to [secure] their career. When I talk to young people, however, it’s [as if] I’m on a whole different page.
ROBYN CLARKE: Well, as one of those young people…. I graduated from college two years ago, and the majority of [my] friends who [have gone] into corporate America are only doing it to get [the] experience to go out and do their own thing. In my parents’ generation, corporate America was the thing to do. Now, it’s “inc.” yourself and make a million dollars.
WALKER: That’s definitely the pattern. It’s like this fast-food, fast-track environment now. Especially in technology, if you’re not happy in a year, you just go to the next job. You’re getting seven offers out of college. We’re hypersensitive very early on now…. Dr. David Porter, who teaches at UCLA School of Management, shared that promotions, for African Americans, are a function of time, and that those who are higher-level executives became executives because they stuck it out longer.
MOBLEY: Look at the price that was paid to get there. I just think a lot of younger people are probably taking a more American attitude toward things. It’s “Well, I can [and will] do what I want to do.” The issue is, is the plan [securely] in place to make sure they can do what they want, [even] with the incremental barriers?
WATTS: I applaud Ken Chenault. He certainly deserves [the] position he has earned. He has done the right things and [has been] rewarded for it. How many of us, of you, and other young people, say”I want to do that?”
CLARKE: We do want to do it. We just want to do it for ourselves. And faster.
RODNEY BUIE: The issue is [that] this is a capitalist society. If you have access to capital then you call your own shots. I think our role models are [definitely] there–Reginald Lewis, Ken Chenault. I don’t think the question is do the people in this room aspire to be [a] Chenault or [a] Lewis. The [question] is: can [you] pay the price?
GERALD REED: Well, the issue of the glass ceiling is closely aligned with that of corporate America, in terms of the public sector. Even though corporate America deals with the bottom line, in government, we deal with public policy. But, as Dr. Davidson stated, the linchpin of the federal career service is promotion and developmental opportunities and a lack thereof would build [layers] of glass ceilings.
WATTS: I think the ideals, the goals, the role models and those individuals [who] have ascended the corporate ranks, the higher public policy ranks, have done something to get there. They have paid a price to get there. The more we understand about economic freedom, the more we’ll understand that it gives us greater power and that the avenues and opportunities for getting economic freedom are broader than what we’ve been led to believe. It’s not just corporate America. It’s not just in public policy. It’s broader. It’s entrepreneurship. It is creating something different and new. It’s using transferable skills to get you there. It’s looking at other avenues. It’s sort of bouncing back to the question: Does it matter if that glass ceiling is shattered?
RENEE McCLURE: In the area of technology, yes and no. If you stay in the corporate realm, with technology, you will have that glass ceiling effect to the point where regardless of your skills or your ability to acquire those skills, there are going to be individuals who are not going to want to see you succeed. However, there are cases where those individuals will take those skills and be able to move to any other area.
In the area of IT, you’re seeing [black] CIOs coming up because [corporate America] is looking for the person who is going to provide the best technology and bring the money into the company. The bottom line is greed and, if you exhibit those kinds of qualities and [possess the] technological skills, you will definitely move up. However, there is a barrier there and it [definitely] needs to be addressed. But it is doable.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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