By Courtney Connley
As Chief Digital Officer at Fenton, Chief Member Shakirah Hill Taylor prides herself on being able to create change in an industry that she once felt like an outsider in. "I don't think I saw myself as a C-level executive," Hill Taylor says. "I love my career and what I do, and I always wanted to excel to the highest point, but when I started 13 years ago, not only was it challenging in terms of not seeing Black women at the executive level, but my career specifically didn't exist."
While opportunities for more leaders to enter the C-Suite have certainly expanded over the last few years, representation of Black women at the highest levels of leadership still remains low. Despite ongoing diversity pledges and mandates, specifically after the racial unrest following George Floyd's death in 2020, Black women currently make up less than 5% of C-Suite leaders. When looking at Fortune 500 companies, just two Black women currently serve as CEO, Rosalind Brewer at Walgreens Boots Alliance and Thasunda Brown Duckett at TIAA. Both leaders stepped into their role in 2021, after five years of no Black women leading a Fortune 500 company following Ursula Burns departure from Xerox in 2016. And in the banking industry, where just one in 20 C-Suite leaders are women of color, a slow sign of progress has recently taken place with economist Susan Collins becoming the first Black woman to lead a U.S. Central Bank.
"I've definitely encountered moments where I felt like I had to take a step back and just pause because of the lack of diversity in the field and the lack of space to feel authentic," Hill Taylor says about her own career journey and seeing little to no representation at the top. Like many Black women, Hill Taylor says she's been the only in several rooms at work, oftentimes feeling like her voice, opinions, and presence were not accepted. What motivated her to keep going, she says, was knowing that "if I made it to a certain point where I can be a decision maker, then I can help change the trajectory for other people."
In honor of Black History Month, we spoke to Hill Taylor, as well as Chief Members Leslie Pitterson and Charlene Polite Corley, about the work leaders still need to do when it comes to making room for Black women at the top.
Know the Difference Between Growth and Typecasting Assignments
After starting her career in media and then moving into finance and now tech, Pitterson, who serves as Microsoft's Head of Communication for Business Development Strategy and Ventures, says she's seen a common theme across industries and workplaces around the type of work Black women are often given on their way to the top.
"I think Black women are often given the tight rope assignments, or the hard work," she says. "And I think one of the things that exacerbates that pressure is that it plays into this strong Black woman stereotype. So, you have managers who think I'm giving you a growth assignment, but really it's typecasting."
Earlier in her career, Pitterson says it was easy to confuse the hard assignments that she received or the requests to stay late and help with another project as praise and recognition from her boss. But, as she gained more clarity around the need for boundaries in the workplace, she realized that appreciation for her work was only recognized when she was working twice as hard as her peers. At the executive level, this phenomenon is often referred to as the "glass cliff" where women and people of color are primarily given leadership roles during a time of crisis, making their job twice as hard as the often white male peer who came before them.
"Managers, especially non-Black managers in the workplace, have to have a sense of awareness of these tropes associated with Black women, especially the strong Black woman trope, because if they aren't aware of it and it is used in discriminatory ways at work, then they often become defensive and that really misses the point," Pitterson says.
She adds that, "putting Black women on this track where it's like the way upward for you is to walk a tightrope, then walk a tightrope over a cliff, then walk a tightrope over fire" is dangerous and it can easily impact the pipeline of Black women entering leadership. "We don't often think about what this does to the psyche of the person going through that and basically being told that, 'The only way you can achieve what you're seeing your peers achieve with far less effort is to really sacrifice your own wellbeing,'" Pitterson says. She warns that "if we continue to make this the chosen path for leadership for Black women then we're not going to have Black women in leadership because they can and are choosing themselves."
Give Black Women Both a Voice and a Seat at the Table
Corley, VP of Diverse Insights & Partnerships at Nielsen, says one of the biggest challenges she's seen Black women face is the inability to fully speak up and out about changes that need to take place, even when they are in a decision-making position.
"You'll hear folks talk a lot about a seat at the table and you can have every seat filled, but if nobody's talking and if nobody feels empowered to share or speak up or even correct course then your table isn't doing us any good," she says. She explains that too many times business leaders will add a qualified Black woman to their leadership board just to check off a diversity box, but they won't provide the space for her to fully bring her ideas and perspectives to the table. "The numbers are important because you have to be there, but then you have to have a culture and environment that says, 'You're an equal, you're empowered and when you speak up we're actually going to listen.'"
According to a report from Lean In and McKinsey & Company, Black women face disproportionately high barriers in the workplace as it relates to racism and sexism and they are often penalized when they speak up. In fact, 32% of Black women who have reportedly spoken out against bias and discrimination in the workplace have faced some level of retaliation.
"I think that when you put Black women who are conscious in work environments and who are legit really trying to make positive change, they tend to be the most vocal," Hill Taylor says. "And while the quota and the appearance of the diversity looks good, the push to accountability can ruffle a lot of feathers. I've definitely encountered that in workplaces where I was highly respected and in workplaces I wasn't." Looking back on past experiences, she says there have definitely been times when she left a company feeling very demoralized and wondering, "Is there something wrong with me?"
"I would wonder, 'Is it me? Maybe I'm the problem? Maybe I should just keep my head down and be quiet,'" she says. "But that's not who I am. And certainly I've learned the balance of knowing what places will actually give me the opportunity to influence positive change, and what places are just lip service."
To really create space for Black women to feel like they can show up fully and lead authentically at work, Hill Taylor says it's going to take a level of awareness from corporate leaders in understanding the value of diverse thought. "Leaders need to understand that the world view that Black women operate and move through is going to be inherently different and bring so much value, because we have an extra level of consciousness in that we're Black and we're a woman," she says. "And if companies can see the value add and give us room to operate from that worldview and not stifle us, that creates psychological safety."