The number of women holding CEO positions among America's largest corporations is, as everyone knows, very small. Just 23 women are CEOs of companies in the S&P 500. But the number of female African American chief executives among those top businesses is downright minuscule: There is only one black woman, Xerox's Ursula Burns, at this pinnacle of corporate power.
That's certainly not for lack of ambition, according to a new report released Wednesday from the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank founded by the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett. In its research sample, 22 percent of African American professional women said they aspire to a powerful position with a prestigious title, compared with just 8 percent of white professional women.
Black women in the sample also reported being more confident they can succeed in powerful positions than white women (43 percent versus 30 percent) and more likely to say high earnings were important to their careers (81 percent versus 54 percent).
The new report also digs into findings from a 2014 study by CTI, which looked more broadly at what professional women and men want out of their careers. At the time, that report found women were generally ambitious about wanting to excel in their careers, make money, and work in jobs that let them empower others and serve a broader mission — but were much less likely than men to gun for high-ranking jobs in their organization.
When Hewlett and her team dove deeper into the demographics, though, they were surprised to see stark differences along certain ethnic lines. Those findings formed the basis for the latest report. African American women, it turned out, were an outlier, Hewlett said in an interview. "They really had a great deal of clarity. They were both ambitious and they loved power."
Despite that ambition, the data show that black women are more frustrated than white women about their path to the top. CTI gathered responses from 356 black women and 788 white women working in professional jobs. And 44 percent of the African American women, compared to 30 percent of the white women, reported feeling stalled in their careers. They were also more likely to feel that their talents weren't being recognized by their managers (26 percent versus 17 percent).
Katherine Phillips, a professor at Columbia Business School who has served as a paid adviser to CTI but was not involved in the current report, explained that CTI's study demonstrates the problem black women face when they're trying to advance their careers. While they may raise their hand and want to climb the ladder, unconscious biases could mean they're not always welcomed.
"We're 'leaning in' so far we're flat on our faces," Phillips said. "Even if I keep leaning in, I need someone there to open the door."
That struggle may in part be due to the unique set of biases that black women experience when it comes to leadership roles. On the one hand, past research about leadership styles has shown that stereotypes about black women — that they are more assertive, more direct, even brash — could actually help them advance in their careers, compared with white women.
Robert Livingston, a professor at the University of Sussex who has studied this phenomenon, said in an interview that "black women can adopt a more assertive leadership style without being penalized compared to white women. It’s less of a violation of the prescriptive gender stereotypes."
And yet when it comes to how African American women are judged on their performance, research shows they face a bigger challenge than their white peers. "If a black woman makes a mistake and a white woman makes a mistake — or even a black man makes a mistake — the black woman is penalized most harshly," Livingston said, "because she’s two degrees removed from the prototype of a 'leader,' which is a white male."
CTI's report cites another way such unconscious bias plays a role in the advancement of black women's careers: Just 11 percent of black women have a sponsor, according to prior research from CTI, compared with 13 percent of white women. In this case, "sponsor" describes an advocate in the top leadership ranks who does more than mentor and provide advice, but instead actively promotes the more junior manager's career.
In addition to statistics about ambition and power, the new report also includes stories from the more than 65 African American executive women the think tank interviewed about their experiences. The interviews included figures like Karla Martin, director of business strategy at Google, and Melissa James, a managing director and global head of loan products at Morgan Stanley. In many of CTI's interviews, black women cited their family experiences and cultural history as factors that influenced their attitudes toward ambition, financial independence and desire to achieve powerful roles to help create opportunities for others.
"A lot of their drive for the top really went back to what they saw their mothers and grandmothers doing both in their homes and leading in their communities," said CTI senior vice president Tai Green, a co-author of the report. Others cited the Civil Rights movement and their families' own experiences with inequality as motivators.
"The majority of black women we interviewed were raised by parents and grandparents who instilled in them this sense of not having a voice, and feeling they have a responsibility to go after it themselves and pave the way for other women to come up," Green said.
Hewlett and Green also pointed out that black women are more likely than white women to be single mothers, unmarried or the primary breadwinner in their families. They said these could be contributing factors to why African American women in their study reported being more interested in powerful jobs and the earnings that come with them. In addition, Hewlett said, "they also take a lot of responsibility for extended family and a community in which they may be one of the few high-wage earners."
Green said CTI looked at the professional ambitions of other minority groups as well. Asian American women's appetite for powerful executive jobs was more similar to white women's, while Hispanic women's was closer to that of African American women. The think tank plans to produce a report examining those findings in more depth in the future.