April 20, 2024


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Will Kamala Harris as vice president finally change how corporate America sees and treats Black women?

12 min read

Wearing a suffragette white suit and pearls in Wilmington, Delaware, Kamala Harris sent a poignant message to Black and brown women and girls in her first speech as vice president-elect.

Kamala Harris has made history as the first woman elected to be vice president in the US

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“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, said during her victory remarks on Nov. 7. “Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

The senator from California is the first woman, first Black person and first person of Asian descent to be elected to the nation’s second-highest office in 243 years, and some hope her ascension will be felt beyond the public sector.

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“As a Black woman myself, I am counting on it, that we will take this watershed moment and use it as an opportunity to break down barriers for women of color,” said Dnika Travis, vice president of research at Catalyst, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on the advancement of women in the workplace.

a close up of a sign: Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 10, 2020.

© Carolyn Kaster, AP
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 10, 2020.

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Others are more skeptical.

“I wish I could say that I thought Kamala Harris’s ascension to the vice presidency would portend a change for Black and brown women in corporate America, but there’s nothing really to suggest that will be the case,” said Adia Harvey Wingfield, sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

“I do not mean to downplay Kamala Harris’s achievement. It is a momentous one that has important and critical symbolic and representational significance,” said Wingfield, whose research focuses on racial and gender inequality in professional occupations. “But there’s no reason to believe that her singular accomplishment is going to mean a wholesale shift in corporate policy, culture and norms. And that’s what it would take to see a sea change for Black and brown women in those settings.”

Eight years of President Barack Obama did little to boost representation of Black men on the nation’s corporate campuses and in its office towers, says Victor Ray, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Iowa.

“And then there is often a backlash and we have been living through that backlash for four years,” Ray said. “That’s the kind of thing that worries me.”

After George Floyd, a Black man, died under the knee of a white policeman in Minneapolis earlier this year, major corporations issued statements of support and pledges to address the racial chasm in their organizations. The outpouring was unprecedented after decades of corporate silence on anti-Black racism and police killings in the United States, yet corporations still have little to show for it. 

“The numbers in corporate America at the top of the hierarchy haven’t changed that much, up or down. You see these little blips when there are things like the protests around George Floyd, and then things tend to return to a kind of equilibrium,” Ray said.

Women hit the ‘Black ceiling’

For decades, Black women have been underestimated and overlooked at the nexus of money and power in corporate America. Ellen McGirt, senior editor and author of Fortune magazine’s Race Ahead column, calls these entrenched patterns of discrimination and exclusion that obstruct Black women’s careers the “Black ceiling.” 

Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox, was the first and only Black woman to run a Fortune 500 company. Today, none of the four Black CEOs running Fortune 500 companies is a woman. This is current

Of the 279 most powerful executives listed in the regulatory filings of the nation’s 50 largest companies, only three, or 1%, are Black women, and that includes one executive who recently retired, according to a USA TODAY analysis.

Black women, who make up 7.4% of the U.S. population, are significantly underrepresented throughout corporate America’s leadership ranks, occupying 1.6% of vice president roles and 1.4% of C-suite positions, LeanIn.org reports in “The State of Black Women in Corporate America.”

graphical user interface: A display of books about President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore

© Mark Makela, Getty Images
A display of books about President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore

Even as they make big strides in the workplace, too few are invited to join insular corporate networks. They can count on fewer senior executives as mentors. They are more rarely considered for coveted promotions to top operational roles. And they are typically paid far less, earning 63 cents for every dollar paid to their white male peers when working full-time. White, non-Hispanic women are paid 79 cents. 

Over the course of their careers, they also pay an “emotional tax,” from the strain and hypervigilance caused by overlapping discrimination based on race and gender, racial stereotypes and cultural slights. According to 2018 research from Catalyst’s Travis, 61% of Black women reported being “highly on guard.” 

What’s more, when Black women strike out on their own, they are among the least likely to get checks cut by venture capitalists. So few raise venture money that the percentage is, statistically speaking, nearly zero.

‘Twice as good to get half as far’

Crystal Ashby says she understood at a young age that she had to clear a far higher hurdle than others simply because she was African American and female.

“I was raised like many of my friends that as a Black person I had to be twice as good to get half as far,’’ says Ashby, the first Black woman CEO of the Executive Leadership Council, a group of current and former Black CEOs and senior executives at Fortune 1000 and other major companies. “It is part of the foundation of who I am, provided to me as a child.”

But Harris’ ascent has set a new marker for a new generation.

“There is a generation of little girls and young women waiting in the wings who now know with certainty that their possibilities are endless,’’ Ashby told USA TODAY.

Harris can also change the lens on Black female leadership for others.

“I believe that having a Black woman vice president will help others view Black talent differently,’’ she said. “One of the biggest myths is that companies take a risk in hiring Black talent for leadership roles. This is simply not true, particularly when the data shows that Black women are more educated and work twice as hard as their white counterparts. Seeing a Black woman in this high-ranking leadership role will hopefully continue to dispel that myth.’’

Still, she acknowledges that change won’t happen immediately.

“There is still much work that needs to be done to level the playing field for Black women,’’ Ashby says, adding that Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation) found that 69% of Black women professionals felt they had to work harder to progress in their organization as compared to 16% of white women. 

“I would posit that much of corporate America may not even be aware of these barriers, let alone prepared to break them. So, it’s clear we have a long way to go to create a corporate culture conducive to the unequivocal advancement of Black women in business.”

What undermines Black women 

The highly contentious presidential election brought its own set of burdens. Personal attacks on Harris have been frequent since Biden chose her as his running mate. 

“Black women face a particular set of stereotypes and a particular double-edged sword where they are more often caricatured as angry and hostile when they are demonstrating assertiveness and confidence,” said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “That set of race and gendered stereotypes undermines Black women’s leadership in a lot of important ways.”

For months, President Donald Trump mocked Harris’s first name, which means “lotus” in Sanskrit, mispronouncing it as “Ka-MAH-La.” In an October rally speech, he dismissed the idea of America having a “female socialist president.” He’s also described her as a “monster.” 

“I think part of the really poisonous national politics we have seen in recent years is white men in particular who are very threatened as they are not the only ones who hold the decision-making power in the country anymore,” Martin said. “And I think that’s one reason why we have seen such really overtly racist and misogynistic talk and action in public that I think even a few years ago, people would have felt like they had to be a little less explicit about.”

Martin hopes Harris will normalize the leadership of Black women and chip away at stereotypes. 

“It’s not an overnight change,” she said. “But it does change people’s imaginations and expectations in subtle ways and I think that is part of progress.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Kamala Harris as vice president finally change how corporate America sees and treats Black women?

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