Corporate America’s Black Equity Gap: CEO’s must take the lead

As our country struggles to come to grips with the horror and disgust of more black lives violently and unjustifiably killed by police, we’ve seen an outpouring of support for Black racial equality like never before. It’s hard to fully express the myriad of emotions we are all experiencing. Admittedly, I am not too sure what to make of it all. After years of being told that racism was Black peoples’ issue to solve, this new response of white solidarity is, at times, disorienting, but also cautiously uplifting. It is a time of deep reckoning and activism.

A number of high-profile CEOs and business leaders are also weighing in to voice their support for social change in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement. Through social media channels or internal statements to their company’s employees, these leaders are condemning racism and announcing multi-million-dollar initiatives to advance social justice. Their actions, primarily externally focused, have caused many to question their integrity on the issues — given the lack of racial diversity within senior management and c-suites of corporate America. In this era of activism, there is a heightened expectation by employees that their CEOs do more than simply talk about change; they want to know where they personally stand on the issues and what they plan on doing internally to promote diversity, equality and inclusion. The very first step these leaders should take in mitigating racial inequities in society, is to look inward, starting with their own corporate cultures.

For decades now, corporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs have been in place across various US industries, but the level of sustainable commitment from leadership has ebbed and flowed dramatically. As a retired corporate business leader, and former Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) for several global corporations, this has been my life’s work. A CDO is an organization’s executive level diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)strategist. Roughly 20% percent of Fortune 500 companies employ diversity officers. Although diversity practitioners have effectively proven the business value of DEI initiatives — in increasing market share, providing greater ideas, innovation and profitability — very few companies and organizations have made meaningful strides to improve the workplace. Some industries are either still at the infancy stage of engagement, or making little to no meaningful change — particularly, the technology industry.

So, how bad is the racial equity problem for Black professionals in the corporate sector? Out of all of America’s Fortune 500 companies, only four CEOs are black — less than a percent — and all are male. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, blacks comprise more than 13% of the population. Compare that to a 2019 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, which found that Blacks hold 3.2% of senior leadership positions at large companies. 65% say they have to work harder to advance within the workplace, compared to 16% of white employees. The study — Being Black In Corporate America: An Intersectional Exploration — was conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, at the University of Chicago under the auspices of the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit research organization. The study highlights that Blacks who work in corporate America feel devalued, regularly endure microaggressions (subtle racism) while doing their jobs, find it exhausting to fit in authentically, are often overlooked for promotions, and do not see themselves reflected in upper management roles, resulting in a distressing work experience. Additionally, Black employees continue to feel pressure to prove themselves in the workplace but perceive “barriers to advancement that are largely invisible to white professionals,” the study found. For years, Black employees have experienced having to be twice as good to get half the recognition. Many acknowledge that their white counterparts fail to notice the drastic difference in treatment or promotional opportunities, which, is why the recent racial incident with Amy Cooper hit home for so many Black professionals.

The video of Amy Cooper, a white woman in Central Park, calling the police on a Black man who was bird watching and asked her to put her dog on a leash, which was the law, struck a deep chord with many, especially the Black community. The video captures her telling him that she was going to call the police and say that “an African American man was threatening her.” Through her words and actions, Amy Cooper demonstrated that her demeaning beliefs about Blacks consciously drove her threat to make false accusations towards him; and that she understood the power that claims by White people have over Blacks (especially a White woman over a Black man). Amy’s mentality and behaviors towards Black people are not unusual in the business world, particularly at the leadership levels. The question becomes, how many black professionals have been overlooked, ignored or denied opportunities in hiring, promotion, sponsorship and advancement discussions by leaders with similar mentalities? Alternatively, to what extent do companies promote, reward and advance leaders with conscious biases and mentalities like Amy’s?

These questions go right to the heart of issues of equality and economic justice for Blacks in corporate America. As Black professionals confront racial stereotypes in the workplace, they are often working to correct false narratives associated with bias and personal preferences, rather than legitimate requirements of the job. I know from a personal level that when Black professionals show up professionally prepared, knowledgeable and highly engaged in the workplace, they become a perceived threat to those who have had little exposure to their presence. The microaggressions they often encounter are that they are ‘articulate, intimidating, aggressive or arrogant.’ The impact to successful Blacks is that they may experience their careers being sidelined, feeling isolated, or having their visibility blocked due to others’ fear of being overshadowed. Former First Lady, Michelle Obama, expresses this so eloquently in her book, Becoming. She notes “I was female, black and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mindset, translated only to “angry.” It was another damaging cliché, one that’s forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room. An unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.”

The implications can be financially costly to Blacks, leaving them to wonder about the fairness of their performance ratings, corresponding bonuses, opportunities for advancement and whether they will be fairly compensated for their contributions over the long term. If CEOs wanting to make DEI progress in their companies were to start by addressing these specific issues in support of Black professionals, it would be an important step in truly transforming their corporate cultures. They must realize that simply proclaiming a commitment to hiring and promoting more Black professionals over xx years, does not equate to greater equality and inclusion in the workplace. Without significant culture change, the end result will be a slow, but steady hemorrhaging of Black talent out the back door.

To effectively address issues of racial and economic justice internally, CEOs must take ownership and intentionally drive a culture shift of accountability among leaders at all levels. This in required to close the gap between what is said and actual impact. The most effective inclusion strategies employ a deep-rooted commitment that extends organization-wide. Tackling these issues is hard work, requiring courage, commitment and integrity from the top. In this age of greater social activism, employees are expressing stronger views on this topic and increasingly expecting senior executives to speak up and take a stand on sociopolitical issues that are important to their quality of life. The era of seeing this work as a “check the box, let’s go do diversity today,” initiative owned by HR is over. This requires concrete actions to improve the lives of people of color.

Here are some steps CEOs and their leadership teams should take to demonstrate their courage and commitment:

· Personally articulate the business proposition for DEI to employees — they need to hear it from the CEO.

· Make cultivating an inclusive culture a top priority — intentionally give this the substantial investment of time and effort needed to create and sustain change.

· Exit leaders who demonstrate exclusive behaviors, conscious bias and refuse to change their behaviors — you know who they are.

· When speaking on issues of race, emphasize that advancing Black talent is not a risk, does not mean lowering standards; diverse talent and highly skilled talent, are not mutually exclusive terms.

· If you don’t have a Chief Diversity Officer, hire one who is highly qualified and has experience in this particular field. D&I practitioners and HR generalists do not necessarily possess the same skill sets.

The bottom line is that corporate business leaders should commit to hiring, promoting, compensating, raising pay, bonusing, and rewarding Black talent equally with White talent, to strengthen Black economic stability. Executives must tackle the tough issues, ask the hard questions, and force organizations to confront weaknesses or address subjects they would otherwise choose to avoid or ignore. It is time for CEOs to take the lead.

Gwen is highly regarded as an expert in the field of global diversity, equity and inclusion.