2 years after George Floyd pledges, Black women still denied top jobs at largest companies. This is why

  • White men are still nearly 8 times as likely as Black women to be an executive.
  • White women are 4.5 times more likely than Black women to hold a leadership position, USA TODAY found.
  • Discrimination is disrupting the careers of Black women despite pledges after George Floyd's murder.

Deep racial inequities in the U.S. workforce disproportionately harm Black women and other women of color. Nowhere are those gaps more stark than in who gets the jobs with the most pay, perks and power, a new USA TODAY analysis of hundreds of top companies has found.

White women are 4.5 times more likely than Black women to hold a leadership position, according to the analysis, which drew on the latest reports of employee demographics at 287 of the nation's 500 biggest companies provided by data firm DiversIQ.

White men, who dominate the corporate executive ranks, are almost 8 times as likely as Black women to be an executive.

Even Black men, who barely register at the executive level, are twice as likely as Black women to hold these leadership roles. 

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The No. 1 job at a company, chief executive officer, is a rank even farther out of reach at these companies than other executive titles. Only two Black women run S&P 500 companies: Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, and Thasunda Brown Duckett, CEO of TIAA.

At the same time, Black women remain overrepresented by wide margins in lower-level positions such as administrative support, labor and customer service.

The findings have extra resonance as the nation observes the two-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer. His death sparked a movement for racial justice and pledges by corporate America to improve diversity in hiring.

“People only recently really started paying attention to the underlying reasons why Black women are not able to break into executive teams and boardrooms,” said Evelyn Carter, president of diversity firm Paradigm.

Two women embrace in front of a mural of George Floyd following the guilty verdict at the trial of Derek Chauvin, a white former Minneapolis police officer, who was convicted of murdering Floyd.

For decades, discrimination has stymied the corporate careers of Black women, from the harmful stereotypes – like the racist trope of the “angry Black woman” – to a lack of mentorship and support as they climb the leadership rungs

At the current rate, it could take four decades to close the leadership gap, USA TODAY's analysis found. 

For Black women to hold a percentage of executive jobs equal to their share of the U.S. workforce, their numbers would have to swell from about 1,500 today to nearly 4,600 at the 287 companies reviewed by USA TODAY. From 2019 to 2020, the ranks of Black women executives increased by just 80. 

“We have, in most cases, found a way to persist, to be just as successful, to carve out spaces for ourselves and to really thrive. And we do all of that in the face of bias, in the face of racism and sexism, in the face of people’s stereotypes and expectations," Carter said. "Think about what power you would unlock if you stopped putting all of these headwinds in front of Black women.”

Intersectionality: Black women face racism and sexism

When Ella Bell Smith was researching “Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity,” she was in her early 40s. The seminal book that she wrote with fellow academic Stella Nkomo contrasted the paths of the first generation of Black women to hold managerial and executive positions with those of their white women counterparts.

Today, Bell Smith is in her early 70s. The book was recently rereleased, just as current as the day it was published, she says, with Black women still battling the same systemic issues.

Just a tiny fraction of the S&P 500 companies reviewed by USA TODAY – 10 out of 287 – had the same percentage of Black women in the executive suite as there are in the nation’s overall workforce. Just 33 had a share of Black women executives that matched the diversity of their overall employment ranks.

Their scarcity in the executive suite is the result of a unique set of challenges Black women face when their identities overlap, producing discrimination more complex than just racism and sexism alone, said Bell Smith, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.

“Corporations don’t know how to deal with the intersection of race and gender,” said Ella Bell Smith, a Dartmouth professor and co-author of “Our Separate Ways," which examines the career trajectories of Black and white female managers.

“Corporations don’t know how to deal with the intersection of race and gender,” she said. “When you have two oppressive mechanisms, what happens is it can keep you really locked in at the bottom. Men don’t have that intersection and women do. And Black women are paying the price for it.”

Research has found that Black women are significantly more likely than white women and just as likely as white men to express interest in becoming top executives. Yet they have far fewer opportunities for advancement inside major corporations.

The careers of Black women often stall in middle management. Comparing the representation of managers to executives, white women are twice as likely and white men three times as likely as Black women to progress into corporate leadership, a USA TODAY analysis showed. 

“People have a problem seeing what wasn’t there before," said Saidah Grayson Dill, vice president and deputy general counsel at Cisco Systems. "If you’ve never seen a Black woman in a position when that position is open, you’re not necessarily looking for that. It takes a while mentally to understand, oh, this person may actually be good for that position."

When Grayson Dill told a high school teacher where she was going to college, she recalls he answered with surprise: “You got into Stanford?” 

“Forget about the fact that I was an excellent student," she said. "Forget about the fact that I was vice president of the school. Forget about the fact that I was an athlete. Forget about all those facts. It imprints on your mind.”

So she set out to prove her teacher wrong. From Stanford, she charted a path via Georgetown to the legal profession, where Black women are just 2% of its members. She worked for two international firms before joining Cisco Systems.

She says she’s been fortunate to work for clients and corporate leaders who recognized her talents and made sure she got a foot in the door and a seat at the table. Black women are less likely than men and white women to have supervisors who advocate for them or give them stretch assignments and leadership responsibilities, a McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org report found.

Saidah Grayson Dill, vice president and deputy general counsel at Cisco Systems.

“My whole career, my whole journey has been being one of the few people in the room who looked like me,” she said. 

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As Black women rise in organizations, their existence becomes more solitary. They are often the only, or one of the only, Black women on their team. They feel their performance gets extra scrutiny. And they feel additional pressure to be perfect as an ambassador for all Black women.

'Leadership is in the Black woman's DNA'

“What is really painful about this is that if you look at African American communities, it’s Black women who are the leaders. It’s not that this group does not have leadership skills. Leadership is in the Black woman’s DNA,” Bell Smith said. 

Yet it’s common for Black women with top credentials “to not be encouraged, to not be supported, to not be given the opportunity, to not be sponsored, to not get the visibility and as a result cannot move into top-line executive positions,” she said. 

A woman in June 2020 works on a mural honoring George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Even when they land top roles, Black women still get questioned if they belong in them.

Three years ago when Lisa Wardell, a new director, showed up for a board meeting, a white male member of the company’s management team asked her to get him a cup of coffee. 

The room fell silent. Everyone else had reviewed the biographies of new board members beforehand.

“I’d be happy to grab you coffee while I get some for myself,” Wardell, a veteran corporate executive, said she replied. “Since I’m new to the board, why don’t we walk over there together to get to know each other?” 

Wardell was one of the lucky ones. She says she got plenty of practice “being uncomfortable” as a vice president and chief operating officer for RLJ Companies, the investment firm led by Bob Johnson, the founder of BET.

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Wardell was frequently invited to present to the board and to lead company meetings filled with white male bankers. She said Johnson advised her to own her authority, telling her: “If you don’t think you belong in the room, you don’t belong in the room.” 

She credits that early exposure to the echelons of corporate America with allowing her to demonstrate she had the chops to run a company. 

In 2016 when Wardell took over AdTalem Global Education, she was one of only two Black women CEOs in the nation’s 1,000 top companies. A year later, she was the only one. 

Lisa Wardell, executive chairman of Adtalem Global Education

The assignment was the classic example of a “glass cliff,” where women are placed in leadership positions because an organization is in crisis. The company then known as DeVry was facing multiple lawsuits and a federal investigation for false advertising and improper business practices. Under Wardell's leadership, the company sold DeVry University, rebranded as Adtalem, and shifted focus to health care education.

“I had to come in and push out an entire management team, for the most part,” she said. Investors, analysts, and others cast her as an “angry Black woman,” among other stereotypes when critiquing her turnaround of the company. Several yelled in her face.

Wardell’s overhaul included putting women and people of color into top jobs, including the Black man who took over as CEO last year, Stephen Beard. Wardell says she also made sure executive compensation and performance were tied to diversity and inclusion outcomes. 

The company, she says, is stronger for it and her early critics have come around.

Black women breaking through in corporate America 

Business leaders must reshape the business culture to remain competitive, according to Bonita Stewart, vice president of global partnerships at Google, who says expecting people of color, particularly women, to adapt to the historical status quo will not be enough as the nation and its workers grow more diverse. Plus, young adults are more likely to believe there is a widespread systemic bias against people of color and women, according to a survey co-led by Stewart. 

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“From a management perspective, if you want to retain talent, you’re going to have to understand culturally how to tap into the talent to ensure you’re getting the highest return for your business,” she said. 

And that means shaking up traditional views of what leadership looks like.

Bonita Stewart, vice president of global partnerships at Google

Stewart’s father, John Coleman, aspired to be an Air Force pilot at a time when the service excluded Black people or relegated them to menial roles.

“The story was he would walk into the recruiting office and they would say, ‘Not today,’” Stewart recalled. 

He kept going back until they accepted his application. Once in the Air Force, he fought to be a pilot, not just a navigator. One of the Air Force’s first Black pilots, Coleman, a major, was among those who flew the world’s first supersonic jet. 

Before he died during her freshman year in college, Stewart says her father taught her to become the change she wished to see in the world. In 2011, she became the first Black woman vice president at Google.

If he were here today, she imagines he would say: “She’s a pioneer. Just like me.”