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Barriers to the top – what’s stopping black women reaching the heights of business?

Look at any list of top CEOs, across almost all industries, and you’ll find a clear and obvious lack of diversity.

There are no Black chairpersons, CEOs or CFOs in any of Britain’s FTSE-100 index companies, and in the Fortune 500 list, there have been only 20 Black CEOs out of around 1,800 leaders in its 66-year history.

It’s an even bleaker picture when you look into the number of Black women in the most senior leadership positions. They are significantly underrepresented, not just in the world’s largest companies, but across organisations both big and small.

The concrete ceiling

Regardless of race or colour, women face an abundance of barriers when it comes to achieving senior positions within business. Barriers such as: harmful attitudes and perceptions about their potential, poor organisational policies, career breaks, lack of mentoring and support, lack of talent spotting and a lack of suitable role models are more often than not evident in some capacity across most companies.

For Black women, they have to contend with the above while facing the additional barrier of racial discrimination. So, whereas women in general are facing a glass ceiling, Black women are dealing with a “concrete ceiling” they have to break to reach the top.

So, what can, and indeed should, businesses be doing to tear these barriers down so that talented Black women can break through this concrete ceiling? Here are 3 of our suggestions…

  1. Understand and change the culture from the top down

We know that a there are numerous benefits to creating a diverse workforce; increased engagement, creativity and company performance to name a few. Building a workforce that’s comprised of people from different backgrounds and with a mix of experiences is paramount to success.

In order for companies to successfully change the narrative when it comes to hiring or progressing Black women into leadership roles, they first have to actually want to. For many companies, this is the biggest challenge they face and where the biggest changes need to be made.

A positive company culture that genuinely values inclusion, diversity and is support of equality for all would encourage career progression and leadership aspirations among Black women.

Existing senior leadership teams therefore need to take responsibility for the make-up of their companies and ask themselves, ‘are we committed to changing and creating environment and internal culture that facilitates and promotes the growth of a diverse workforce?’ If they’re not, they need to be.

  1. Improve support and progression pathways

Areas that have consistently been lacking for Black women include having access to the right support and guidance throughout their careers. Likewise, there is a lack of role models and Black women in senior leadership positions to look up to and aspire to emulate.

Identifying Black female talent within their organisations early on, and working hard to engage, develop and progress them should be a key consideration for all businesses. Their potential must be seen and their willingness to lead nurtured if they are to progress and advance in their careers.

More often than not, senior teams model their development strategies on their own path to success. The problem with this is, if the team is made up of white males, their career experiences probably don’t align with those of a Black woman.

Internally, organisations with a clear progression pathway and access to support, training and mentorship along the way can reap the rewards that come with this advancement. It is down to each company to offer the same level of support and opportunities to all their employees, levelling the playing field and removing the barriers to senior roles.

Again, this links back to the first suggestion regarding changing the culture within the business and really being honest about whether you offer a fair and equal opportunity for all, and an environment that facilitates the career growth of Black women.

  1. Strengthen your hiring and talent strategies

As a business, as well as identifying where it might be going wrong with its culture and development strategies, it’s important they identify what they’re doing to attract and engage with diverse candidates.

If it’s clear that Black women, or any other demographic, are underrepresented within the organisation, then steps need to be taken to address this and it needs to be considered throughout their hiring strategies. This isn’t to suggest it should involve acts of tokenism but going deeper and thinking about how they can attract the best Black female talent to work for them through strategies such as updating the language on their website and job ads, their website imagery and the networks they tap into at the initial stages is vital.

To be successful, this needs to be part of a larger piece within businesses. There needs to be a full commitment to changing the culture and then supporting Black female employees, developing them through their careers and into leadership positions. Demonstrating that externally will go some way to attracting the best talent to their organisation.

Read more about creating a diverse talent strategy here…

As with organisational and societal changes, they won’t happen overnight, but the fact that Black female talent is so grossly underrepresented at the very top of the organisational ladder should spark serious concern.

Written to coincide with International Women’s Day, 2021 and inspiration taken from this article: https://fortune.com/2021/02/25/thasunda-brown-duckett-tiaa-ceo-black-women-ceos-fortune-500/