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The ‘prevailing challenge’ that’s keeping the C-suite from being diverse

If anyone questions whether corporate America lacks diversity, the fact that there only four black CEOs in the Fortune 500 — Merck’s Kenneth Frazier, TIAA’s Roger Ferguson, Tapestry’s Jide J. Zeitlin, and Marvin Ellison of Lowes — should serve as proof of that fact.

The Executive Leadership Council is a non-profit organization aiming to diversify America’s workforce by helping blacks become C-suite level executives. The ELC recently partnered with the Center for Talent Innovation on a study titled: “Being Black in Corporate America, An intersectional Exploration,” which shows that black professionals only make up 3.2% of executive or senior leadership roles the U.S. 

“Our North Star is to put more blacks on boards in the C-suites and create more black CEOs,” council president and CEO Skip Spriggs tells Yahoo Finance. 

There has been ample documentation of a lack of diversity in corporate leadership ranks. A report released last year from the Alliance for Board Diversity (ABD), in collaboration with Deloitte, found that despite a push to diversify the Fortune 500, minorities held only 16.1% of those companies’ board seats as of 2018. 

The ELC’s corporate board initiative alone has helped place over 230 black directors on boards. Despite the progress, challenges obviously still remain when it comes to diversifying corporate America. 

‘One underrepresented group that hasn’t gotten better’

“Most companies will tell you that they are getting better as far as diversity inclusion goes … Still, when you disaggregate the data that they use to say that ‘we’re getting better,’ there’s generally one underrepresented group that hasn’t gotten better, and that’s blacks,” Spriggs said.

Ken Frazier, Chairman and CEO, Merck & Co., speaks during a meeting of the Economic Club of New York in New York City, U.S., October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

“The prevailing challenge that we have today, in particular, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, is from an awareness perspective,” said Spriggs, who noted corporations often count themselves as diverse if they hire white women. When given a choice, he said, corporations often hire female white leaders over black professionals.

The numbers seem to back up Sprigg’s claims. Compared with four blacks there are currently 32 women who are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, according to Fortune magazine.

Systemic racism and unconscious bias

One in five black professionals feel that someone of their race/ethnicity would never achieve a top position at their company, according to the ELC study. Many say that they have little access to senior leaders.

“Underlying all of it is just the systemic racism that exists in our society,” Pooja Jain-Link, lead researcher on the Center for Talent Innovation on a study, tells Yahoo Finance.

Jain-Link has conducted research on microaggressions — indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against minorities or other marginalized groups — in the workplace. Black professionals are more likely than people of other backgrounds to experience 14 different microaggressions in the workplace, her research has found. Some of these microaggressions include being mistaken as someone else of the same racial background, colleagues touching the hair of other colleagues without permission and managers meeting one-on-one with other members of a black person's work team but not them. 

If companies want to address their racial diversity problems, she says, they must engage in “courageous conversations.” 

“I think courageous conversations is something that a lot of companies have been trying to do recently, but the reason that those aren’t creating greater change is they’re not addressing the baseline,” she said. 

“You’re not addressing the beliefs that people come into these conversations with. And so there needs to be that initial education and solitary work that people need to do on their own before a courageous conversation can have an impact.”

Unconscious bias has played a significant role in holding blacks back from leadership roles, according to Aron Betru, managing director of the Center for Financial Markets at the Milken Institute. If companies want to diversify their upper ranks, he says, the first step is to recognize that unconscious bias exists. Companies should involve people of diverse backgrounds in decision-making processes, according to Betru.

“I don’t see today’s problems a root of overt racism as in ‘I’m not going to help a black person.’ I don’t think that’s the case,” he said. “I believe there is something to be said for a kind of affinity to what you know.”

Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade.

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