raceAhead: Breaking the Multi-Colored Glass Ceiling

August 9, 2018, 7:17 PM UTC

When Indra Nooyi announced she was leaving the top spot at PepsiCo, it triggered a painful and necessary look at the plight of women in executive leadership: There are now only 22 women CEOs in the Fortune 500 index. None are black.

And while we continue to celebrate the overdue firsts — the last twelve months have seen the Fortune 500’s first openly lesbian CEO, first Latina CEO, and the NBA now has their first black woman CEO — the pipeline of CEO-ready women is thin. Recently, Denise Morrison of Campbell Soup Company; Margo Georgiadis of Mattel; and Irene Rosenfeld of Mondelez have all left the top spot. All, like Nooyi, were replaced by a man. In fact, according to data compiled by Catalyst, since 2009, only three female CEOs were followed by another woman.

The glass ceiling is entrenched, particularly for women who aren’t white.

The problems start early. The biggest gender gap strikes at the first leadership level: Women hired in as individual contributors are 18% less likely to be promoted into management than their male peers, according to Women In the Workplace, a 2017 study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey. And their data makes clear that representation goes downhill from there, particularly for women of color.

Nooyi herself pointed to the pipeline issue in an interview with The New York Times DealBook column. “I would have loved for the board to have had a woman to pick from. But at the end of the day, the board selects the C.E.O., and we just didn’t have any women who were ready for the job,” she said.

She says “high profile” women are often poached earlier in their careers to lead smaller firms, instead of sticking around to fight for the assignments that will prepare them to run a global outfit. Turns out, the traditional model of “bread-winning-husband-uproots-family-to-be-groomed-overseas” doesn’t work for everyone. “How do we give them the international experiences? We have to develop those women differently.”

Part of what she seems to be saying is that everyone needs to be developed differently. There simply can’t be a single, thirty-five year-long path to a C-Suite.

The Women in the Workplace study examines a laundry list of barriers that women experience – including the wage gap, lack of sponsorship, the burden of parenting, etc – all of which are amplified for women of color in very real ways. (Similar data on women in leadership from Catalyst, here.)

All of these insights provide fodder for best practices and remedies that could work across industries. Of course, more data is needed; to that end, I expect that as the #TimesUp movement continues to press for justice and change, there will be new ways to measure the impact of systemic contempt for professional women in the workplace.

But it’s probably worth parsing the overly broad “women of color” category, too, even informally.

What do we really know about the lives of Guatemalan-American executives? Or Pakistani entry-levels? Caribbean American high-potentials? The Filipina professionals who are left out of the “model minority” calculation entirely? How would these insights help create a leadership pipeline where all women can thrive?

Consider this must-read piece from Slate’s Tiffany Diane Tso, which explores the many ways that perceptions of Asian American women hold them back at work. Here’s just one example she cites: “For Asian American women, the model minority myth manifests itself in especially ugly forms that derive in part from our cultural fixation on Asian women as sexual objects. In a 2015 study for RacismReview, author and activist Sharon Chang researched public perceptions of women of color, including Asians, through Google’s search algorithm. Chang found that Asian women were the least likely to be viewed as leaders and most likely to be fetishized.”

One of the big takeaways of the Women In The Workplace study is the tendency of majority culture folks (in this case, white men) to believe that the modern workplace is vastly more equitable for women than it actually is.

But the numbers suggest that everyone has some work to do to understand the specific barriers faced by the many women who get lumped together in the “underrepresented” category. We can all be an ally to each other.

On Point

Puerto Rico updates the death toll from Hurricane MariaThe new number, quietly updated in an official online report, is some 20 times the original of 64. It is likely that the actual number is closer to 1,427, the number used in a draft of a report requesting $139 billion in recovery funds, and due to be released today. The death toll swelled after the storm subsided, due to injuries, and other health crises like sepsis, untreated diabetes, and suicide. The government has been widely criticized for under-reporting deaths, and the report continues to soften the language, saying the deaths “may or may not be attributable” to the storm.New York Times

Spike Lee is holding court
Rembert Browne sounds like he had a fine time chasing Lee around Martha’s Vineyard for this rollicking profile ahead of BlacKkKlansman, which hits theaters on August 10. The film, based on a true story of a black cop who cleverly infiltrated the Klan in the early 1970s, is also one of Lee’s most timely film in ages. Not only is it addressing our tortured history with race, it’s being released on the anniversary of the white supremacist and counter-protest rally in Charlottesville, VA that ended in the death of Heather Heyer. Buckle up, Lee is ready to speak on all of it. “People become delusional and think they’re not black anymore because they are accepted—it’s the okey-doke,” Lee says. “You can say that now, but they still think you’s a nigger.”

Sharice Davids is on track to become the first lesbian Native American member of Congress
And that barely scratches the surface of how interesting she is, although it's a milestone she's embracing. The former Obama White House fellow is an attorney and former mixed martial arts fighter, and she won the Democratic nomination for a House seat in Kansas with 37% of the vote. Her November bid is expected to be a tough one, but if she wins, she’d be the first openly LGBT person to represent Kansas. "What we see are Kansans getting tired of a lot of politics of division and bigotry," says the executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Kansas.

Designing high tech clothes for an underserved market
The clothes are a mix of practical – how do you put on a coat when you’re losing the use of your arms? - but also fashion forward. Open Style Lab started out as a public service project at MIT; now it's a non-profit collaboration of engineers, designers and occupational therapists who team up to create custom garments or gadgets for individual clients that preserve their independence, dignity, and style. Design tools are cutting edge –  AI and 3-D printing; looking forward, the Labsters hope to partner with tech companies and hospitals to get their designs into the broader marketplace. Some one-fifth of Americans are living with a disability, and it’s one of the few demographics that anyone can join at any time.


The Woke Leader

Get ready for the Crazy Rich Asian takes
I’m here for all of them, frankly. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a film with a mostly Asian cast and rich Asian themes; and until Fresh Off the Boat came along, it had been a twenty-year drought on the small screen as well. This first-person account from radio journalist Stephanie Foo seems like a great place to start: “I couldn’t have predicted how impactful seeing my story onscreen would be,” she says. Now, she’s not rich, but “[d]espite the whole gobs-of-money thing, it did still feel like my story because Crazy Rich Asians is not so much about money as it is entitlement — especially the entitlement to unapologetically be yourself.”

Google honors Mary G. Ross, the first Native American woman engineer
Oklahoma-born, member of the Cherokee Nation, Mary G. Ross was the first Native American woman engineer. Honored by a Google doodle on the 110anniversary of her birth, it’s a wonder she’s not a household name. The first woman hired by Lockheed, she worked on the precursor project to the Apollo mission and was a founding member of Lockheed’s  SkunkWorks, a top-secret 40-member internal think tank. “I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research. My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Frieden computer. We were taking the theoretical and making it real.”

The race-based reason there are so few midwives in the U.S.
In the U.K. and parts of Europe, midwives are responsible for up to three-quarters of deliveries and have consistently better outcomes than the doctor-led deliveries, which account for some 90% of births in the U.S. So, why don’t Americans call the midwife more often? A century-long concerted campaign to medicalize birth was driven in part by money: Doctors and hospitals see birthing services as a reliable source of revenue. But Quartz’s Annalisa Merelli throws in an interesting twist: race. The medical field’s “expansion into childbirth was especially effective, partly because the midwives who were, until then, running childbirth were overwhelmingly African American and Native American,” easy targets for derision during Jim Crow times.


There are not enough [black women] coming out of the education system to get them all the way through to the C-suite. HR isn’t going to get you there. Communications and the arts aren’t going to get you there. 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.
Ursula Burns

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