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Breaching the Concrete Ceiling

As the U.S. economy shows faint signs of recovery, innovative and diverse leadership is essential. At a recent Leadership Summit in New York City, The National Council for Research on Women identified ways of advancing and retaining women of color in positions of responsibility in the business sector.

The barrier to women’s advancement commonly referred to as the "glass ceiling" often feels more like a "concrete ceiling" to women of color who face the dual challenges of racial and gender bias. Women of color held only 3.1 percent of board seats in Fortune 500 companies in 2009, according to the business research organization Catalyst. But in today’s fragile economic climate, shattering the ceiling to make way for fresh perspectives is more important than ever.

By mid-century, people of color are expected to comprise 50 percent of the U.S. population—and diversifying talent has already become an imperative for many businesses that want to compete in the global marketplace. Yet women of color have barely gained a foothold in the leadership pipeline. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, African American women represent a mere 5.3 percent of all people employed in management, professional, and related occupations. The figure for Asian American women is only 2.8 percent, and for Latinas, 3.8 percent.

Women of color bring valuable skills and unique insights that are being lost through their lack of input and participation. At NCRW’s Leadership Summit (The Challenge and the Charge: Strategies for Retaining & Advancing Women of Color), speaker after speaker offered testimony about how the experience of being an outsider in top business schools and corporate firms prepared them to become expert navigators and effective negotiators, with an understanding of cultural differences. These skills are particularly important for companies in international settings but often go unrecognized, if managers aren't trained to acknowledge and value them.

Recognizing the need for diversity, however, is just a first step. Corporate managers, predominantly white males, have significant cultural barriers to overcome. For example, summit participants reported difficulty in receiving detailed, frank, and constructive feedback from supervisors who seemed uncomfortable critiquing their work. And senior women managers also need to recognize that they have a special responsibility to open doors for other women of all races and ethnicities.

At the same time, there is a strong need for engaging men as mentors and sponsors, who can help advance the careers of talented women. Helpful people need not "look like you," advised Carla Harris from Morgan Stanley. Different people will play different roles. "You need advisors to show you how to do technical things," said Harris. "You need mentors, not necessarily from your organization, to whom you can show the good, the bad, and the ugly. And you need sponsors to whom you show the good, the good, and the good, who will pound the table on your behalf behind closed doors."

"Harris added, "you can go a long way in your career without a mentor. You will not move up in any organization without a sponsor"—someone "with juice to get the job done," who is willing to "spend their capital" to see you advance.

In return, a professional rising through the ranks needs to inspire trust. "Performance is absolutely an essential first step," said Glenda McNeal from American Express, "but you also have to convince people of your loyalty, that you have their backs."

To move forward requires not only changing mindsets, but carefully monitoring progress. "If it's important, it gets measured, it gets done" in the business world, said Bank of America's Jose Garcia, arguing that managers need to be held accountable for meeting business and performance goals for diversity just as they do for bottom-line productivity.

Later this year, the Council will disseminate findings from the summit, compiling case studies of companies engaged in strategic work to advance women of color into corporate leadership, and reporting on their outcomes, successes, and continuing challenges. It is time to make real headway in breaking through the 'concrete ceiling.' That means getting behind the strategies that work best and mobilizing support from the top down. Leaders not only need to recognize the importance of change, but they must become active agents to ensure that change happens.

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