Black Women Are an Overlooked Talent Pool

This is a very insightful information entrepreneurs and business people have to know closely.

Some years ago, Rosalind Hudnell, vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer at Intel, spearheaded an internal women's study to better understand the issues that might be impacting women's retention and progression in the company. During a report out, a consensus emerged from the white women around their workload, in particular, the terrific toll their round-the-clock global roles took on their family life.  An equally strong but startlingly different consensus emerged among the black women, recalls Hudnell. “We wish we were so lucky to have those issues,” one black female told the group. I’d love to have a job that was so important that I needed to be on the phone at 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. But I’ve yet to get those opportunities.”

Today, Hudnell is proud to note that black women are holding those global roles at Intel – she’s one of them. But the incident underscored for her what many talent specialists ignore at their peril: women as a talent stream are not monolithic, and white and black women contend with very different issues and perspectives as they navigate the workplace.

Women Want Five Things, the Center for Talent Innovation’s 2014 report on women and ambition, revealed that, at the prime of their working lives, women want to be able to flourish, to excel, to reach for meaning and purpose, to empower others and be empowered, and to earn well. Black women want these things just as fervently as white women, but, according to a new CTI report, Black Women: Ready to Lead, there are three critical differences.

  • Black women nearly three times more likely than white women (22% vs. 8%) to aspire to a powerful position with a prestigious title. They’re also more likely to perceive that the benefits of power (defined as influence validated by title or status) outweigh the burdens: They see power enabling them to flourish (26% vs. 14%) and to empower others (22% vs. 12%); they’re 52% more likely (32% vs. 21%) to view as an important aspect of power the ability to exert influence on other powerful people. 
  • Black women are far more confident (43% vs. 30%) that they can succeed in this leadership role. And they’re clear on what they want to achieve personally as powerful women: personal growth, social justice and, especially important, financial independence. 
  • Black women are 50% more likely than Caucasian women (81% vs. 54%) to rate earning well as important in their careers. They’re also more likely to cite financial independence as one of their top three goals.
However, wanting power and honing their qualifications in order to be in line for it haven’t yet delivered black women to the executive suite. They’re more likely than white women (44% vs. 30%) to report feeling stalled and to feel that their talents aren’t recognized by their superiors (26% vs. 17%).

That doesn’t bode well for coming up with the right products and services to satisfy an increasingly diverse marketplace in which women wield disproportionate power over purchasing decisions. Earlier CTI research on “Innovation, Diversity and Market Growth” demonstrated that when teams have one or more members who represent the target end user, the entire team is as much as 158 percent more likely to understand that target, increasing their likelihood of innovating effectively for that consumer. Conversely, companies that ignore the insights of their talented black women will lag the curve in delivering successful solutions to the marketplace. 

What can companies do? There’s no silver bullet but these three actions can go a long way to paving over the potholes that trip up black women intent on an executive position:

  • Formalize sponsorship.  Black women find it extremely difficult to win sponsorship: a mere 11% have sponsors, underscoring the imperative of giving highly qualified ambitious black women greater visibility and connection opportunities with top executives. “Executive sponsorship is critical,” says Rosalind Hudnell, vice president of Human Resources at Intel, “as it can result in accelerated promotions and highly visible positions of strategic value to the company.”  
  • Start earlier. Programs aimed at developing black women’s leadership skills and fomenting sponsorship must absolutely include their managers and line-of-sight leaders. Because women of color struggle to be their authentic selves at work, they’re not inclined to share details of their life outside work – such as leadership positions they embrace in their church or community – with their managers. “That makes it hard for managers to know enough about them to represent them as talented people to their own superiors,” says Trevor Gandy, head of diversity at Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. “Successful outcomes depend on [managers] being involved in the initial discussion, on having a role so that they’re vested in these women’s advancement.” 
  • Combat unconscious bias. Would-be sponsors may scrutinize a black woman’s executive presence against leadership norms they’re unaware of. “Women and people of color have let us know that they find it difficult to advance in the organization and that they are hindered by the unwritten rules for getting ahead and being seen as future leaders,” says Nadine Augusta, director of diversity and inclusion and corporate social responsibility at The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC). “That points to biases we must address.” To make leaders conscious of “insider/outsider dynamics” and their effect on hiring, promotion, and leadership tracking and development, talent specialists at DTCC recently commissioned The Dagoba Group to take the entire executive management team through its Inclusive Leadership Training. Awareness training is at best a first step, however. “Educating is not enough,” says Valerie Grillo, chief diversity officer at American Express. “We’ve got to equip leaders with tools to mitigate their assumptions. Gender intelligence training gets at some of those underlying perceptions. Maybe we need to offer leaders cultural intelligence training as well.”
By training leaders to assess black female talent through a more enlightened lens, companies can begin to harness and unleash the extraordinary drive, commitment, and experience these women bring to the workplace.

Founder of Center for Talent Innovation & Hewlett Consulting Partners.

Photo: Gene E. Phillips, Flickr

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