What Women of Color Have to Do to Break Through

Why are there are still so few women in the upper ranks of corporate America? Last week, Lean In and McKinsey & Co. published a major study on women in the workplace and found a few surprising conclusions.

Contrary to popular belief, women aren't abandoning their careers in large numbers, nor do they lack the ambition or confidence that will propel them upward toward the top jobs at their company, the study found. Interestingly, roughly equal numbers of men and women say they want to be promoted.

But, as their careers progressed, many women confessed that they don't want the top job.

There is an exception hidden within the study's finding: women of color reported being, on average, 43 percent more interested in becoming a top executive than white women, and 16 percent more interested than white men.

This finding resonates with me. It was my life. I grew up in a neighborhood in North Little Rock, Arkansas, where very few households were headed by fathers. In fact, almost all of my friends were raised by single mothers who were the sole breadwinners for their families. This experience was the norm in that working class neighborhood.

Women of color - particularly African-American women - may not be more ambitious, per se. Instead, many of us are the sole providers for our families and are, therefore, motivated on a different level. A 2008 Pew Research report shows that Black children are much more likely than White or Hispanic children to live in a home with only one parent.

The Lean In report suggests that the strong ambition expressed by black women in the workplace wasn't being adequately cultivated by people further up in the corporate chain. Nearly half of Black women interviewed said they hadn't received senior-level support in advancing their career, compared with about a third of White, Asian and Hispanic women, the survey said.

I was lucky to have found a female mentor early in my career who looked like me.
My first job was as a financial analyst at a large, New York City-based investment bank. I naively thought that if I worked hard I would get ahead. I had no idea that there was a whole lot more to professional success than just doing the work. My first performance review was, unfortunately, not focused on the quality of my work but on my lack of communication skills (i.e., not schmoozing enough with the senior managers) and my general lack of fitting in. My manager also gave me feedback about my attire (i.e., advising me to buy a few nicer suits) even though I couldn't then afford a newer, more professional wardrobe. I was devastated, but I was fortunate to have one Black woman (who had several years of seniority) help me regain my footing.

Women of color bear a particularly heavy burden. Many of us supporting our families - often without a partner - and navigating a sometimes unwelcoming work environment. It's up to employers and individuals to take the road map outlined in the study to try and create a world where gender inequity is something of the past.