It is a common and damaging misperception that Black women either can’t lead or don’t want to lead, but that is far from reality. Black women can and do want to lead. They have been leading for centuries in a variety of settings across a multitude of demographics and cultures, yet organizations have failed to appreciate and take advantage of this breadth of experience. Black female leaders aren’t dealing with a glass ceiling.
For Black women trying to climb the corporate ladder, it’s like being given a puzzle without all the pieces. Where others have the benefit of a “picture” to guide them, Black women have none. Upward mobility and career advancement are dependent upon meaningful relationships built upon the comforting foundation of familiarity, fortified by shared backgrounds and experiences, and christened by the advocacy of the ones that went before—the ones in the majority, which are often white men.
Where there is familiarity, there is likeness. What I see in you exists in me. That’s why advocacy is not only about paying it forward, it is also about the reinforcement of one’s own self-worth. Your success is my success. But where there is no familiarity, there lies fertile ground for ignorance and bias (unconscious and otherwise), and the bitter fruits are generations of lost opportunity and innovation.
This is the biggest challenge and obstacle for Black women (and truthfully, organizations) because our success is not seen as your success, and your success is not seen as ours. Without Black women in senior leadership roles, the inheritance of their power and leadership goes untapped, and organizations and the cultures and people they affect are the worse for it.
As it stands, Black women have to work very hard to establish common ground, to make those connections, and not only make them but ensure that they are meaningful and long-standing and deep enough to lend themselves to advocacy—so that the mirror reflects both ways, instead of just one. Without that, no amount of work, preparation, dedication, and sacrifice will deliver the Black woman the future that awaits others. And conversely, no amount of positioning Black women as external-facing representatives of an organization’s diversity efforts will yield the results and power inherent in the Black female leader.
So, what should organizations do to tap the leadership power of Black women?
Though research shows that promoting underrepresented groups like Black women to senior leadership positions creates pipelines for future advocacy, that, by itself, is not enough. Redefining what leadership is while uncovering and eliminating bias and ignorance around ideas of Black leadership are crucial.
It should be news to no one that a lack of familiarity and representation are the breeding grounds for biased thinking and stereotypes based on stigmas. Behaviors described as strident, persistent, loud, and aggressive when exhibited by Black women are heralded as competitive, strong, confident, and “leadership material” when exhibited by men. At the same time, skills culturally expected of or attributed to Black women such as relationship-building, multi-faceted connecting styles, and expertise in cross-demographic and cultural communication are often taken for granted, ignored, or—worse—exploited.
Obviously, this phenomenon is not unique to Black women. It is a reality experienced by women in general and must be addressed in a meaningful way. Organizations do this by actively increasing representation beyond the optics of DEI, but holistically, throughout the organization, all the way to the top.
Increasing representation will not only require organizations to confront their biases but will demand a redefinition of what leadership looks like because the Black female leadership pipeline is rooted in different soil. Organizations would be well-served to understand and appreciate the skills, relationships, and power that grows in that rich earth.
For example, historically, Black women were the heart of the home and the community. We were the protectors, the connectors, and the benefactors. Not only were we in charge of ensuring our own needs were met so that the needs of our children were met, but we also needed to become the networkers, coordinators, and leaders navigating every variable of age, gender, and culture so that our families, extended families, and communities could survive.
Given this, organizations need to understand where to find Black women leaders. They need to appreciate the significance of what it means to work and lead a professional sorority or hold a significant church or philanthropic role with a multimillion or billion-dollar net budget—which is just as important as someone who has led a multifunctional organization across a couple of markets. There needs to be an education and understanding of the holistic contribution that Black women bring to leadership and management across a multitude of areas.
However, the persistent lack of familiarity with Black women leaders and what Black women leadership looks like takes a powerful skill set and renders it invisible. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant where each man describes the powerful creature according to their limited vantage point (one says it’s a snake, another says it’s a fan, another a tree trunk), leadership that is drawn from a narrow and monolithic source of experience misses the mark. Organizations that widen their gaze to include the variety of backgrounds that foster Black women leaders will begin to harness the power that lies there.
Additionally, organizations need to widen their gaze by defining leadership not by what is needed in a role, but instead, by the skills that can develop and drive high-performing teams in today’s world—often across a multitude of demographics and changing landscapes, and in a highly networked way. Additionally, this will result in the growth and development of other diverse communities, thereby fueling further growth and innovation.
So what does leadership by Black women look like?
- Black female leaders naturally cultivate a sense of family with a shared purpose regardless of setting, and, in doing so, they develop teams of committed, engaged, and highly driven individuals.
- Black women are inspirational leaders that motivate, encourage and affirm others because they uniquely understand the detriment of not doing so, often coming from the first-hand experience of being left out of highly coveted network circles within the corporate environment.
- Black women succeed by using their authentic leadership skills to identify, develop and grow talent and build highly collaborative groups and teams while working on the sidelines.
- Black women have a high EQ which enables them to interact, influence, and build relationships across demographics. Their ability to gain access to crucial insider information from “unusual suspects” (administrative assistants, junior staff, and other functional areas) ensured their survival.
- Black women are resilient leaders consistently overcoming challenges and obstacles before them. Even though they experience daily microaggressions as they navigate the political, cultural, and social dynamics of their corporate environments (and at a significantly higher level than their female counterparts), their desire to lead remains unfettered.
A study published by the Harvard Business Review put it aptly when they said that Black women practice “authentic leadership through deep self-awareness, demonstrating agility in their capacity to transform obstacles into opportunities to learn, develop and ultimately exceed expectations.”
Bringing awareness and effectively leveraging the skills that Black women possess will not only deliver strong results but will also breathe life into an organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion ambition, as well as much-needed credibility.
There is hope.
What some Black professionals privately referred to as “the Obama Effect”—which seemed to lift the veil from the eyes of corporate America and multinational organizations, enabling them to see Black leadership in a different light—was accompanied by a legitimate interest in developing, investing, and advancing Black corporate professionals overall. This helped.
Black Lives Matter helped. The pulling together of diverse groups to better understand the Black experience in America helped. Having the first Black female vice-president helps by amplifying the representation of Black women in leadership so that it’s followed by more firsts, seconds, thirds, and so on, to surpass the 28 days of Black History Month, the shortest month of the year, to live in every day of the year and into the next and the next.
That is what representation looks like. That is what leadership looks like. That is what America looks like when all the pieces of the puzzle are provided.
Wema Hoover is a global leader and a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion executive. She has led DEI at multiple Fortune 500 companies, including Google, Sanofi, Pfizer, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.