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A ‘Glass Ceiling’ Is Hindering Black Employees’ Growth

Black man holding phone while sitting on a bus

A record number of Black executives oversee some of the most successful companies in the U.S. Still, some workplace experts believe too many qualified Black professionals hit a “glass ceiling” that prevents them from fulfilling their potential.

Eight Black CEOs lead Fortune 500 companies—the most ever, and doubling the number from 2020. But Black people represent just 1.6 percent of Fortune executives and 5.2 percent of all chief executives in the U.S. despite comprising 13 percent of the labor force.

Jen Mahone Rightler, an HR and inclusion, equity and diversity (IE&D) leader based in Flower Mound, Texas, called the record number of Black executives leading Fortune 500 companies “a positive development,” but noted that it is imperative for companies not to grow complacent in supporting Black professionals.

“Genuine progress hinges on a sustained commitment and ongoing support for the advancement of Black professionals across all organizational levels,” she said.

Paul Walsh, head of brand at the Centre for Inclusive Leadership in Rio de Janeiro and an IE&D expert with more than 15 years of leadership experience, said Black professionals deal with a unique set of challenges while trying to ascend into leadership roles—barriers also known as the “Black glass ceiling.”

“Black individuals continue to be underrepresented in senior leadership positions across various industries globally,” he said. “It is a deep-rooted issue of systemic biases, stereotypes and invisible institutional headwinds that impede the career progression for Black professionals.”

Causes of the Black Glass Ceiling

Why does the Black glass ceiling exist? Research points to several factors:

  • Entrenched attitudes or stereotypes about what types of people should get the most-senior jobs at the company.
  • Ambiguous qualifications for promotions that introduce conscious or unconscious biases in decision-making.
  • A lack of networking and mentoring opportunities.

Walsh believes long-held stereotypes against Black workers have played a significant role in preventing many from reaching the upper ranks of their company.

“These beliefs of the Black stereotype are so deeply entrenched in the psyche of people, it will take years to overcome,” he said. “Black professionals especially suffer from the invisible headwinds of bias that these stereotypes create.”

Black stereotypes in the workplace include negative assumptions related to intelligence, social skills or criminal behavior as well as assuming that a person’s racial identity made them automatically suited for a particular job or role.

Kim Crowder, founder and CEO of consulting firm Kim Crowder Consulting in Carmel, Ind., told SHRM Online in 2022 that Black women are often demonized with stereotypical language like “you’re being angry” or “you’re difficult” or “aggressive.” She noted how this language is continuously used to put Black women in boxes and dim their personalities.

“If that same language was used to characterize white men, that would be looked upon as a positive trait,” Crowder said.

A 2022 analysis found that investors react positively to the appointment of Black CEOs: Companies that appointed Black CEOs saw their market capitalization rise by an average of 3.1 percent within three days of the announcement. Conversely, companies that appointed white CEOs saw their market cap fall by 0.91 percent during the same period.

Ways to Shatter the Black Glass Ceiling

Rightler said the Black glass ceiling can lead to organizational problems, such as diminished diversity of thought, lowered employee engagement and missed business opportunities.

“It is vital for companies to acknowledge these consequences and actively work towards dismantling barriers, nurturing an equity-focused culture and implementing inclusive practices,” she said.

Walsh offered five tips for HR to help Black professionals ascend in their careers:

  • Acknowledge and address implicit bias. Make a habit of checking your own biases, which will help you to be fairer in your decision-making.
  • Cultivate inclusive leadership. Promote authenticity, treat workers equally and seek the perspectives of different groups of workers.
  • Implement equitable policies and practices. Prioritize equity in policies and practices, including in recruitment and promotion processes, compensation structures, and opportunities for career development and advancement to enable a level playing field for all.
  • Consider reciprocal mentorship programs. Reciprocal mentoring is when the senior employee is advised, trained or counseled by someone junior to them, giving senior employees insight into the experiences of their underrepresented colleagues.
  • Foster accountability and measure progress. Hold yourself accountable for progress toward IE&D goals by establishing a strategic road map. Track key performance indicators and regularly assess progress to embed a sustainable culture of inclusion.

Walsh said that it is everybody’s responsibility to create a culture of inclusion within our working environments. Breaking the Black glass ceiling is a part of that, he explained, but it requires a concerted effort and commitment from all levels of the organization.

“If we acknowledge the unique challenges faced by Black professionals and implement proactive strategies for advancement,” Walsh said, “leaders can create a more inclusive and equitable workplace where talent thrives irrespective of race or ethnicity.”


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