Black Women Are Leaning In... And Have Been for Generations

Black women are ready to lead and have been for generations. It's unfortunate corporations continue to overlook and underutilize these leaders who are in plain view.
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When director Ava DuVernay started to film Martin Luther King, Jr.'s biopic Selma, she noticed something missing from the script. "When I first came on board the project, the women were not there at all," she explained in an MSNBC interview. She decided to change that by adding to the script the black women leaders whose voices and actions were just as powerful as black male icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X but were not as praised or as recognized. Bringing their stories to light brought out a more authentic side of the Civil Rights Movement and illuminated how black women leaders have and continue to be leaders and pioneers of their communities.

Center for Talent Innovation's (CTI) research can attest to this. Black Women: Ready to Lead, a CTI 2015 report, finds that Black women have always been leaders and/or have always aspired to leadership positions. In fact, our research finds that Black women are more likely than white women to aspire to a powerful position with a prestigious title (22 percent vs. eight percent) and perceive a powerful position as the means to achieving their professional goals. This appetite for leadership is rooted in their cultural background and their upbringing.

"What it means to be a woman, a feminist, in the black community, is very different from what it means to be a woman in the white community," says Ella Bell, founder and president of ASCENT -- Leading Multicultural Women to the Top and an associate professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. "Rosa Parks is part of my lineage. Because black mothers raise their daughters to understand the shoulders we stand on, we have a different sense of who we are, what we can take on, and what we can survive."

Cynthia Bowman agrees. "I was raised being told by my mother to work twice as hard to be on a par with my peers. That gave me greater drive and the interest to aspire to positions of greater control and influence." Now Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Bank of America, Bowman says, "Generally speaking, executive jobs are not a tough sell for black women."

Historically, Bell notes, black women pursued and exercised power in the public sector. But with increased access to higher education, they attained degrees in fields where their authority was guaranteed: as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and accountants. While black women's representation in the ranks of corporate America is relatively a new phenomenon, Bell says that she's astounded by the clarity of their ambition and the ease with which they self-advocate. "They know what they want to do, and how they want to do it," she says. "They're not afraid to bring more of themselves to the table, to share who they are and to make their experiences and perspectives known."

That rings true for Susan Reid, managing director and global head of diversity and inclusion at Morgan Stanley. "There is so much involved in getting to a leadership role, once you're there you're not likely to be ambivalent about being in a leadership role."

CTI data echoes this observation: The black women surveyed are 25% more likely than white women to have both clear near-term (50% vs. 40%) and long-term career goals (40% vs. 32%). They are also considerably more likely than white women (43% vs. 30%) to be confident that they can succeed in a position of power.

Their keen grasp of what power can do likely derives from their long experience holding leadership roles in their households, churches, schools, and communities. Findings from CTI's 2005 study, Leadership in our Midst, confirm that African-American women are far more likely than white men (25% vs. 16%) to hold pivotal roles in religious communities, and to engage in hands-on social outreach (41% vs. 32%). They're nearly twice as likely as white women (25% vs. 14%) to be on the front lines helping young people in their communities as mentors, tutors, and "big sisters."

Perhaps because they've been "leaning in" for generations, black women on track for leadership are more likely than their white sisters to see an executive position as the means to getting what they want from their careers. Much more so than white women without power, black women without power perceive a leadership role enabling them to flourish (26% vs. 14%) and to be empowered and empower others (22% vs. 12%).

"I want to be able to make my own choices, not be told what to do," says Susan Chapman-Hughes, a senior vice president at American Express who oversees global corporate payments for the US Large Market. While earning her MBA, Chapman-Hughes cut out Fortune magazine's 50 Most Powerful Women cover and put her photo in the middle. To this day, she still has the collage; each year, she writes down 10 things that will move her in the direction of her goals. "Tomorrow is not promised to us," she says. "If you want to be happy, you've got to make it happen."

Black women are ready to lead and have been for generations. It's unfortunate corporations continue to overlook and underutilize these leaders who are in plain view. This Women's History Month, let's not just acknowledge the accomplishments of women pioneers of the past. Let's encourage our leaders to embrace and accelerate Black female talent. CTI will tackle this topic further in our forthcoming book, Ambition in Black and White: The Feminist Narrative, Revised, available in July 2016.

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