The Black Ceiling: Why African-American Women Aren’t Making It to the Top in Corporate America

It was supposed to be different by now.

When Ursula Burns quietly shut off the light to her office as Xerox CEO at the end of 2016, her departure also cast a light on a sad statistic: There are currently zero African-American women running Fortune 500 companies. Burns’ appointment to the top job in 2009 had been hailed as a milestone. Suddenly it looked more like an anomaly.

Her story is in many ways perfect for a pioneering figure. She grew up poor on New York’s Lower East Side, the middle child of a single mother who washed and ironed clothes for money. Burns’ strength in math got her scholarships and a summer internship at Xerox. The company invested in her early and often. She made it all the way to the corner office

Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Illustration by Brian Stauffer

This is where Burns rips the needle from the record. “I’m not sure why people are so shocked that someone who had been doing something for eight or 10 years would want to move on,” she says. She’s also not sure why people would be surprised that there isn’t a young Ursula ready to follow in her footsteps at Xerox or anyplace else.

Burns, 59, begins to tick off reasons that other African-American women haven’t emerged to fill the void she left behind.

Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns is a trailblazerCeleste Sloman for FORTUNE
Celeste Sloman for FORTUNE

First, she laments the state of schools and communities that fail to care for low-income children of color and graduate them ready to work. It takes 20 years of education to grow an entry-level employee, or more if they are going to have a specialty that employers really want—like STEM or professional services. Even with black women graduating from college in record numbers, “not enough are coming out of the education system to get them all the way through to the C-suite,” says Burns. And the black women who do make it often end up in support positions rather than the operational roles that lead to CEO jobs. “HR isn’t going to get you there,” she says. “Communications and the arts aren’t going to get you there.” The juice lies with people who are close to the product and the money. “So, now look at the numbers of women we have now. Unless you’re bringing people in from Mars, it’s going to be a while.”

Burns says there are plenty of things corporate America can and should be doing to make sure that the black women currently in the pipeline have a chance to succeed on their own terms. But the lessons of her experience are worth remembering.

“Thirty years ago, when I started working—literally the chances of me making it were worse than minuscule,” she says. “We should be saying ‘hooray’ to the people of Xerox,” she says. “We should be giving them a medal.”

When Fortune’s editors sat down to compile this year’s ranking of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business, another alarming statistic jumped out: One. That’s the number of African-American women on this year’s list, represented by Ann-Marie Campbell, No. 18, Home Depot’s EVP for U.S. stores. (Former Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer, recently named COO of Starbucks, is On Our Radar.) The lack of black women in top jobs stands out all the more because of recent gains by women in the C-suite. When this year’s Fortune 500 was published in June, there were a record 32 women in CEO jobs, up from 21 in 2016. (The number has since dipped to 29.)

At long last, it appears that cracks are beginning to form in the glass ceiling. But for African–American women a barrier remains in place. Call it the Black Ceiling.

Apart from the elements cited by Burns, that ceiling is composed of several complex socioeconomic factors. Black women are at a disadvantage in trying to bridge the familiarity gap with white men in positions of power, because in the words of talent management research firm Catalyst, they are “double outsiders”: They’re neither white, nor men. As a result they’re often shut out from the informal networks that help other people find jobs, mentors, and sponsors.

But the research, which is drawn from a large group of survey respondents Catalyst has tracked for years, also shows that black women often grow demoralized in the workplace. They report environments that they feel continually overlook their credentials, diminish their accomplishments, and pile on cultural slights—about their hair, appearance, even their parenting skills. And they often have fraught relationships with white women, who tend to take the lead on issues of women and diversity. “This is what we call an ‘emotional tax,’” says Dnika J. Travis, an executive and researcher at the Catalyst Research Center for Corporate Practice. “The burden of being on guard all the time affects our lives in really negative ways.”

Susan Reid is Morgan Stanley’s global head of diversity and inclusion.Courtesy of Morgan Stanley
Courtesy of Morgan Stanley

What’s more, black women don’t always have a lot of wiggle room for uncertainty. Data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve shows that the typical black family has about $11,000 in net worth compared with $134,000 for white families, $91,000 for Asian families, and $14,000 for Hispanic families. Furthermore, between 1992 and 2013, college-educated whites saw their wealth grow 86% while college-educated blacks saw theirs plummet by 55%. This only adds to the stress of black professional women who are often focused on maintaining equilibrium at home and in their communities.

Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton has raised $5 million for her early-stage tech investment funds.Courtesy of Arlan Hamilton Unlimited Style Real Estate Photography
Courtesy of Arlan Hamilton Unlimited Style Real Estate Photography

Making sure qualified black women make it through the corporate gauntlet to the upper ranks requires serious efforts in hiring, mentoring, sponsorship, and development. Expecting a company to address biases that are unique to black women is a big ask for such a small slice—about 7%—of the U.S. population. “Corporations don’t like to do this,” says Burns. “For one, they don’t like to leave the other women out.”

But this small, stressed, and hardworking cohort has extraordinary potential to lead. “One of the things that I think is remarkable about black women is that even with all of the headwinds that we face in terms of advancing ourselves, there is this incredible appetite for learning and preparing ourselves for leadership,” says Susan Reid, Morgan Stanley’s global head of diversity and inclusion. “So many of us grew up in families where we saw women who exhibited real leadership at an early age—like in mine, where my mother was the head of the household.” The gap between that appetite and the opportunities presented cause real frustration and pain. “That gap is what we’re trying to solve for.”

While there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, there are plenty of people stepping up to the challenge in interesting ways.

“You can’t hire your way to success on this,” says Barbara Whye, Intel’s still newish VP of HR and chief diversity officer. The 22-year veteran is an engineer by training, and like so many other black women in corporate life, she sees herself in her work. “For so much of my professional life, I was the ‘only one’ in the room,” she says. Whye was naturally drawn to math as a child. As one of eight children in a busy home—her mother was a seamstress and her father was a carpenter—she found herself going to the sewing store and counting out yards of fabric, or reminding her father to measure twice and cut once. “I was their unpaid assistant,” she says.

Whye took the role last April and began to expand the work she’d already been doing on Intel’s “Diversity in Technology” initiative announced by CEO Brian Krzanich in 2015. The company has committed to achieve full representation of women and underrepresented minorities in their U.S. workforce by 2020, and is prepared to spend some $300 million on recruiting, hiring, and other initiatives to get there.

But in the spirit of engineering (of the human variety), Whye points to a new Intel service called the Warmline, now 18 months old, which operates as a safety net for employees who are feeling overlooked or have a grievance with a manager. The call line is staffed by case workers who can help the employee assess what’s wrong and then work with HR to create a solution. Notably, it has also become a trove of inclusion-fail data, which can be broken down by demographic category. “The Warmline is providing predictive analytics to help us get in front of some of these challenges,” she says. Some 8,600 cases have been called in so far.

Bärí A. Williams is the head of business operations, North America, at StubHub.Michelle Feileacan/Courtesy of B Michelle Feileacan Photography
Michelle Feileacan/Courtesy of B Michelle Feileacan Photography

So what do black women at Intel want? A clear career path forward and help connecting with their managers. “For black women, the key issue is around sponsorship,” says Whye.

Managers who are on the wrong end of Warmline feedback now get individualized coaching. And Whye’s team is adding new training for all 13,000 managers that will include content on subjects like psychological safety that she believes will help leaders better overcome biases.

Burns and other senior leaders say that fostering relationships between senior managers and young black women is a crucial step that almost never happens. “There’s no natural place for these people to get together,” says Burns of potential sponsors and ambitious young people. “These places have to be created. There is no natural pathway for connection; it’s not going to happen just walking down the hall.”

Adds Burns: “And most young people don’t know what they want to do or be. They just know they want to be me, or whoever they’re talking to.”

To that end, managers need to do a better job of helping young black women navigate the workplace, “particularly the culture of unspoken expectations,” says Tiffany Dufu, 43, author and chief leadership officer of Levo, a career site for millennial women. And the careers of many women would benefit, she says, from managers simply recognizing the complexity of their lives. “Maybe they’re paying their mother’s rent. Maybe they have people depending on them so other dreams, like their entrepreneurial or political potential, go untapped,” she says.

Young black women need mentors, says Levo’s Tiffany Dufu, to help navigate “the culture of unspoken expectations.”Celeste Sloman for FORTUNE
Celeste Sloman for FORTUNE

And then there’s the matter of feedback. Carla Harris, Morgan Stanley’s vice chairman of wealth management and senior client adviser, says that leaders often fail black women by not being candid about how their direct reports can improve at work, advance in their careers, or course-correct when something goes wrong. “You pick the reason, whether it’s fear of litigation or they’re afraid of your emotional reaction,” she says. “But leaders tend not to give black women the real-deal feedback they need in order to improve. If you’re going to mentor somebody you have to do that, and most organizations are not confrontational, whatever the industry.”

Putting African-American women into the conversation at the highest levels is also key, argue John Rogers and Mellody Hobson, the CEO and president, respectively, of Chicago-based Ariel Investments. When Fortune talked to them for this story, the two were fresh from their Black Corporate Directors Conference, which for 15 years has been an annual confab that’s part power networking event and part activist training. Almost 200 board directors of color were in attendance.

According to Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity, women and minorities occupied about 31% of the board seats of Fortune 500 companies in 2016—up from 26.7% in 2012. And while 19 black women gained seats on Fortune 500 boards last year, boards remain nearly 80% male. But, insists Rogers, this is not solely a numbers game. “Just getting on the board isn’t enough,” he says.

What came out of this year’s conference was a specific plan which Rogers calls the three “P’s”: people, purchasing, and philanthropy. Board members of color are charged with holding their companies accountable for the diversity of their leadership teams, for pushing to source from minority-owned businesses, and in supporting giving that addresses inclusion. “If you really want to create wealth and opportunity in the black community, you need to have jobs and you need to have strong minority businesses,” says Rogers.

Outside the standard corporate environment, African-American women are coming up with creative ways to navigate the business world. Case in point: Arlan Hamilton, the founder of Backstage Capital, an early stage tech investment fund that focuses on three underserved markets in the world of venture capital: black, female, LGBTQ company founders, or any combination of the three. “Like me,” she says. “And I call us underestimated, not underrepresented.”

Hamilton, 36, has had a decidedly nontraditional career path. She grew up in Dallas, by way of Jackson, Miss., and dropped out of high school, embarking on an almost comical series of jobs—from data entry to pizza joint manager to concert tour manager. Hamilton has no formal venture capital background. But she points out that she knows what it means to have nothing, to struggle and to overcome—core qualities for an entrepreneur. “I’m pattern matching for grit,” she says.

Brittany Packnett revived the hashtag #BlackWomenatWorkCeleste Sloman for FORTUNE
Celeste Sloman for FORTUNE

After years of pitching, Hamilton has gotten some bold-faced names in Silicon Valley to pony up a total of around $5 million for her two funds over the past couple of years. First Susan Kimberlin, a Salesforce alum, signed on as a limited partner, which led to other investments from alum of Facebook and Google. And then Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield got in touch on Twitter and asked if he could invest. Her investors now include Marc Andreessen, Lowercase Capital founder Chris Sacca, and Box cofounder and CEO Aaron Levie.

That Backstage Capital and its founder are gaining traction speaks in part to the fact that the tech industry is looking for ways to address its lack of diversity and poor treatment of women—for which it has been under fire in recent months. To that end, every strategy must be on the table, says Bärí A. Williams, 37, now the head of business operations, North America, at StubHub. Williams works with StubHub’s president, Scott Cutler, on a mixed bag of strategic partnerships, marketing strategies, acquisitions, and growth. But like so many black women, she makes diversity part of her job. “Black women are the most educated group in the nation,” says Williams, citing the National Center for Education Statistics. Moreover, the proportion of black women enrolled in college is the highest share of any group, she says, citing the 2011 U.S. Census data. “So why are black women tech founders getting on average only $36,000 in early stage funding, as compared to $1.3 million in funding that white male founders get?”

One piece of good news is that we’re grappling with these issues, as painful as it is at times. After two prominent black women, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and journalist April Ryan, were publicly insulted on the same day last March—by then–Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and then–White House spokesman Sean Spicer, respectively—a Twitter conversation took off that amplified the difficulties black women often face in the workplace.

Educator and activist Brittany Packnett, 32, revived the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork, and it was quickly filled with testimonies from women around the country—of being mistaken for cleaning personnel, of having their credentials disbelieved, of never-ending questions about their natural hair. “I wasn’t surprised by the response, but I was reminded why black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs,” Packnett tells Fortune. “We’re just tired of playing other people’s games. And I don’t want to have to contort myself to fit your expectations, because ultimately that will make me less successful.”

Katrina Jones is driving diversity efforts at AccentureCeleste Sloman for FORTUNE
Celeste Sloman for FORTUNE

Other young black women are intent on pushing for change from the inside. One is Katrina Jones of Accenture, who recently took a lead role at the firm in global inclusion and diversity that has her working on initiatives in the U.S., the U.K., and South Africa. She brings a kind of determination to her role that typical job screenings and assessments might not reveal. Jones, 38, grew up in an affluent white suburb of Austin, but her parents grew up in rural Mississippi. “My father literally grew up picking cotton,” says Jones. “I’m dedicated to increasing the number of black women at the firm because I believe in equity,” she says. “What’s a good word for a ‘group of black women?’ ” she muses aloud. “Let’s call that a victory.”

While we wait for the next black female CEO, Ursula Burns plans to stay busy. She sits on a variety of boards, including Exxon Mobil, American Express, Nestlé, and the Ford Foundation. “I can be helpful, I’m still relevant,” she says. And she plans to devote much of her energy to education. “I’m not kidding about the pipeline,” she says. “All of these corporate efforts [at STEM education] are amazing, but clearly it’s not enough.”

When asked about how she’d grade her time at Xerox, she begins by talking about disruption in technology and the quest to “add value” to the world, to employees, to shareholders.

Then she falls silent. “I love Xerox,” she says eventually. “I think I did a good job.”

A version of this article appears in the Oct. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Black Ceiling.”

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

LeadershipBroadsheetDiversity and InclusionCareersVenture Capital