Black women make up 12.7% of the U.S. population but hold only 1% of positions in corporate leadership. The Fortune 500 does not have a single black woman on it. Clearly, black women face certain barriers when it comes to attaining these leadership roles.
Over the course of 7 years, the Harvard Business Review conducted interviews with 59 black females in corporate leadership positions to document their experiences and their advice.
Despite underrepresentation, a small subset of black women have found success as leaders and played key roles in driving organizational change. We conducted in-depth interviews with 59 black women executives who have occupied senior-level positions in U.S. corporations. We sought to understand the barriers they faced, their strategies for ascending through the organization, and the tools they used to manage significant organizational change efforts and navigate career risks.
The Black female leaders we interviewed were all within four levels of the CEO (e.g., chief marketing officer, senior vice president) during the first interview and 51% were still at that rank or higher during the second interview. The women led companies in various industries including financial services, consumer products, and healthcare.
Our findings indicate that one main driver of their success was their ability to navigate the challenge of intersectional invisibility, or the tendency to be overlooked, disregarded, or forgotten due to one’s status as a member of two underrepresented and devalued groups. We uncovered that the women we interviewed combatted this by taking on visible, high-risk roles that helped them ascend to the upper echelons of their companies.
Harvard concludes their findings with this statement: “Our research suggests that black women thrive in challenging roles and are ready to answer the call.”