How to get Black female leadership talent into the C-suite

By Sophie Hares

Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, two social movements founded by Black women, have increased pressure on businesses to raise the number of women, particularly Black women and other women of color, in executive positions.

For good reason.

Women in senior management remain underrepresented in corporate America even though their numbers increased from 17% in 2015 to 21% in 2019, according to research by consulting firm McKinsey. In C-suites, white women accounted for 18% (68% were white men) a year ago. Women of color, which included Black and Asian women and Latinas, accounted for just 4% (10% were men of color).

A panel discussion at the AICPA’s 2020 ENGAGE conference addressed the need for more women, particularly Black women, in executive positions.

“Diversity is not just how it looks, it’s how decisions are made,” said Scharrell Jackson, chief operating officer at BPM, a Bay Area public accounting and advisory firm. Jackson was one of two Black female executives on the panel and answered questions in a follow-up interview.

“Everything is tied to the bottom line,” she said. “If we want our organization to shift in the face of diversity, we must hold our partners and our executives financially responsible for that success.”

To better balance the scales for women in corporate America, access to sponsorship, equal first-rung promotion, and client exposure are just some of the issues that need to be tackled, panel members suggested.

Also, awareness must rise about the lack of access to opportunity Black women face, according to the McKinsey study and a 2019 survey by LeanIn.Org, which focuses on getting more women in corporate leadership:

  • White men report having access to senior leaders at three times the rate and white women at twice the rate of Black women.
  • 31% of white men had a sponsor or mentor during their career, compared with 27% of white women and 19% of Black women.
  • 33% of white men received job or executive leadership training, compared with 30% of white women and 19% of Black women.
  • One-quarter of Black women report their manager helps them navigate organizational politics, compared with 39% of white women and 41% of men.
  • 35% of Black women say their managers promote their contributions to others, compared with 46% of white women and 46% of men.

Recruitment, retention, and development

“Ultimately, in order for us to have greater representation in the C-suite, it’s an ‘and’ strategy,” said Latoria Farmer, executive director for Workforce, Inclusion & Diversity at KPMG in Dallas, a Black female executive on the ENGAGE panel.

This means companies need to focus on talent acquisition and developing and retaining women while qualifying them to be promoted to leadership ranks where they can exert influence, she said.

“No one lever, no one of those things independently will move the needle. It has to be a trifecta,” Farmer said during the panel discussion.

Despite broadly equal numbers of male and female graduates entering accountancy, the lack of diversity starts early.

Women tend to doubt their abilities more than men and often have insufficient feedback from managers who fail to create “road maps” to help better position them for new roles or higher salaries, the executives said.

By the first round of promotions, white men are leading the race, panelists said, adding that unconscious bias means senior management tends to elevate people they can easily identify with.

Finding sponsors who understand the specific challenges Black women and other women of color face climbing the ranks is an all-too-common challenge in the profession, where white men dominate senior positions, they added.

“Essentially, you don’t have the role models, you don’t have someone who looks like you that currently has that seat at the table,” said Jessica McClain, CPA, controller at Brand USA, a destination marketing firm in Washington, D.C. McClain is Black.

“Without having that person in the room to speak for you, you’ll never get a seat at the table,” she said in an interview.

Raising awareness

Black women frequently encounter microaggressions. The LeanIn.Org survey found that 40% of Black, female participants had their judgment questioned in an area of their expertise, compared with 36% of white women and 27% of men. Also, 42% of Black women reported being asked to provide evidence of their competence, compared with 29% of white women and 16% of men.

Jackson, the ENGAGE panelist, said Black women are often told their language or directness makes others feel uncomfortable. She added she is usually the only woman of color at corporate events.

“If you do happen to be invited to the table, oftentimes one of the barriers for a Black woman is they want to change you,” she said. “You’ve been invited, which they will call inclusion, but you don’t belong.”

It takes more than hiring a specialist consultant to improve diversity, Jackson and McClain said. It requires a genuine top-down commitment to change the entire corporate ethos. This can start with simple steps such as intentionally recruiting graduates from historically Black universities.

Also, clients and investors can exert their influence to ensure firms actively promote diversity.

Goldman Sachs, for example, announced this year it would not help U.S. or European companies go public unless they had at least one “diverse” board member in 2020 and two in 2021.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has definitely accelerated, and it has opened organizations’ eyes as to the barriers, biases, and impediments that have inhibited diverse individuals from entering the C-suite,” said McClain.

“If you haven’t figured out as a leader that you need to have greater diversity, equity, and inclusion within your organization,” she said, “there needs to be repercussions. Organizations need to feel the pain financially and reputationally.”

As businesses continue to strategize how to deal with the impact of COVID-19, the current disruption should also be an opportune time to overhaul their approach to diversity, the executives suggested. Although in reality, it could take years to see real change.

“While BLM is the hot topic today, I am not confident that there will be a long-term commitment by many executives. The commitment will take both a financial and emotional investment,” Jackson said. “The bottom line is, there has to be a call to action that starts from the heart or a positive financial impact on the organization for business leaders to shift.”

— Sophie Hares is a freelance writer based in Mexico. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, a JofA senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com.

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