Removing the concrete wall: how to increase the number of Black women in leadership

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Beautiful young confident professional black african business woman holding laptop, coworkers hold a meeting in background.

There’s the gender gap and there’s the race/gender gap

The ‘glass ceiling’ is now a common term used to reference the set of obstacles women face to hinder their progress in the workplace, especially as they aim to rise up the hierarchy into the upper echelons of top management. It has been found that the higher up the corporate ladder one goes, fewer women can be found, hence the term “leaky pipeline”(1) to describe the loss of women in leadership as workers advance to more senior positions. In 2019, in the United States , 40% of all managers were women (Catalyst, 2020) (2), but only 30 of these women held CEO positions (6%) at S&P 500 companies by the end of the year (Catalyst, 2020). It should be noted that the proportion of women in senior management is growing; and, whilst that is a positive move forward, it is not growing fast enough. In January 2017, women held 29 CEO positions (5.8%) at S&P 500 companies. Therefore, the difference is only one CEO position more (i.e., a 0.2% increase), in almost 3 years. This trend is not only in the US, but worldwide.

The gender gap is even wider for women of color, who find themselves adversely affected by both sexism and racism. In the US in 2019, White women held about 32% of all management positions, while Black women held about 4% (Catalyst, 2020 (3)). Furthermore, these percentages dwindled as movement was made from first/mid-level managers to executive/senior-level managers; and, based on the December 2019 S&P 500 list, none of the CEO positions were held by Black women. Whereas women in general are facing a glass ceiling, women of color, and Black women in particular, are dealing with a “concrete ceiling” or “concrete wall” they have to attempt to break to reach the top.

Experiences and challenges of Black women in business

Generally, Black women have less support and fewer opportunities for development and advancement. They often experience exclusion rather than inclusion. In a masculine national culture, men are preferred for leadership roles, particularly in certain industries and functions, and they are praised for their assertiveness and passion. However, women are disproportionately overlooked, and Black women are further discounted because they are perceived as unprofessional, incompetent, and angry or hostile with an attitude (Hall et al., 2012 (4); Kramer, 2020 (5); Phipps & Prieto, 2018 (6)) . It is important to note that everyone has an attitude, whether favorable or unfavorable, toward specified behaviors. Thus, the inaccurate and unfair insinuation is that Black women usually have a negative or bad attitude, regardless of circumstance, so they are unlikeable and don’t deserve to progress. Black women also feel a heavier pressure to conform to White ideals of “professionalism” (Phipps & Prieto, 2018 (7)) . An example is natural hair texture and selected hairstyle, which are linked to any person’s identity. Black women continue to be discriminated against for wearing their hair “natural” or styling it in an Afrocentric manner. Therefore, unfortunately, they are often forced to choose between their career ambition and their personal identity.

Dr Simone Phipps

Filling the gap in leadership: mobility and equality for Black women

The disparity in leadership must be addressed. Black women should be afforded equal opportunity for employment and career advancement. The “Lean in” framework (Phipps & Prieto, 2020) links both internal and external factors to gender social mobility but is particularly crucial for Black women. It is widely accepted that intentions precede behavior, and the framework explores how individual as well as organisational and societal elements influence intentions, and subsequently behavior, to seek and seize opportunities to lead.

Addressing the internal factors: the individual

Yes, there must be a willingness to lead. Agency is important for career mobility. Women in general, and Black women in particular should have leadership ambition, motivation, self-efficacy, competence, and a willingness to take some risk, and they do. The problem is that organisations and society often place prejudicial barriers in their way, disregarding merit, and obstructing their attainment of leadership positions. For some, this constant denial, despite proof of worth, may curb their desire to pursue leadership, but a more inclusive and supportive organisation and society can also positively impact willingness to lead, augmenting ambition, drive, confidence, and risk-taking, thus influencing intentions to lead and behavior geared toward seeking and seizing leadership.

Addressing the external factors: the organisation

Leadership intentions and behavior can be bolstered by organisational culture. A positive organisational culture that genuinely values inclusion, embraces diversity, and is supportive of equality for Black women would encourage leadership aspirations and actions aimed at seeking and seizing leadership. The organisation also has to “walk the walk.” Black women must feel comfortable to be themselves at work, and still have their potential seen, and benefit from mentorship opportunities, training and development opportunities, and advancement opportunities. Additionally, facilitation of the opportunities is not enough if competent Black women are then ignored when the selection is made. They must actually get the position for which they have applied and prepared so diligently via mentorship as well as training and development. Open, honest communication is also important so Black women can have a voice and express their views authentically without fear of retaliation.

Addressing the external factors: the society

Society also has a part to play as it still has deep-rooted bias concerning both gender and race, so professional Black women remain severely underrepresented at the highest levels in business. Individuals and organisations do not exist in a vacuum but instead are influenced by the world around them. Thus, societal perceptions and expectations of women and their roles, and specifically Black women, need to be confronted. As long as society perceives Black women negatively, and expects them to accept their lot instead of daring to self-advocate, and have the ambition, drive and confidence to lead, change will be slow and limited. Society can impact leadership intentions as well as behavior directed toward seeking and seizing leadership. Moreover, society does impact who actually gets the leadership position in organisations.

Concluding thoughts and a lesson from history

Historical narratives can offer great insight into current problems and help spark ideas and provide solutions for future progress. Maggie Lena Walker (1864-1934) was an African-American business and civic leader, and among other achievements, the first Black woman to charter/own a bank (the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank) in the US. In one of her many speeches she bemoaned the plight of Black women who were “circumscribed with every imaginable obstacle.” Despite the societal challenges of her era related to racism and sexism, she had the ambition and confidence to lead, and exhibited agency. However, she also had a robust support system in the form of the organisation with which she was affiliated (the Independent Order of St. Luke), whose positive culture allowed her to implement and lead a number of initiatives. Can you imagine how many more Black female business leaders there would have been if there were more organisations like St. Luke? Likewise, Black women would have benefitted from more equitable societal perceptions and expectations.

The same assertions ring true today. Yes, individual characteristics are important, but organisations and societies matter too. One of the priorities of social innovation should be to increase the number of Black women in leadership. Does education need to be redesigned to address and remove specific biases? Does legislation need to be implemented to mandate representation in organisations? Will governmental incentivization work? Is it up to Black women to pursue a cooperative advantage (Prieto & Phipps, 2019) as they serve as allies for one another? A combination of practices may be necessary to permanently remove and destroy the concrete wall that blocks Black women from advancing in the workplace.

Dr Simone Phipps is an Associate Professor of Management at Middle Georgia State University, in the US, and an Associate Research Fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation, Cambridge Judge Business School.

The Social Ideas Podcast: shattering the concrete wall

‘For Black women, it’s not even a glass ceiling’

In this episode, Dr Simone Phipps discusses the systemic racism Black women have to overcome to become valued business leaders.


(1) Catalyst. (2020). Women in management: Quick take.
(2) Catalyst. (2020). List: Women CEOs of the S&P 500.
(3) Hall, J. C., Everett, J. E., & Hamilton-Mason, J. (2012). Black women talk about workplace stress and how they cope. Journal of Black Studies, 43(2), 207-226.
(4) Kramer, A. (2020, January 7). Recognizing workplace challenges faced by Black women leaders. Forbes.
(5) Phipps, S. T. A., & Prieto, L. C. (2018). The business of Black beauty: Social entrepreneurship or social injustice? Journal of Management History, 24(1), 37-56.
(6) Phipps, S. T. A., & Prieto, L. C. (2020). Leaning in: A historical perspective on influencing women’s leadership. Journal of Business Ethics, Online First.
(7) Prieto, L. C., & Phipps, S. T. A. (2019). African American Management History: Insights on Gaining a Cooperative Advantage. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing Limited.

Dr Simone Phipps

Dr Simone Phipps

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