Black Men in Corporate America: Confronting Stereotypes and Dispelling Myths
There is not a day that I have ever come in, not a minute that I have ever worked with this company, in particular, because that‘s a good length of time, that I am not conscious of the fact that I am a Black male, not one minute; and I remind my White colleagues, my managers, and the leadership of this company, that you have the privilege of coming to work every day, and never having to think about being male or White. (Gordon Sims, Ph.D., 52-year-old diversity leader in a utilities company).
Diversity brings both strengths and opportunities.
Today, the U.S. workplace is incredibly diverse and that diversity brings both strengths and opportunities. In 2001, University of Illinois professor, Rose Mary Wentling stated, “The changing workforce is one of the most extraordinary and significant challenges facing U.S. organizations today.” Fifteen years later, professor Wentling’s findings are even more apparent. With all the change in workforce demographics, it is remarkable how little research exists on career development and race. I discovered the dearth of available research a few years ago during my doctoral studies when I decided to study how the intersection of race and gender impacted the career development of Black men in corporate America.
What’s happening with Black men in corporations?
I became intrigued with studying Black men in this context because I noticed a diminishing pipeline of Black men in succession for senior executive positions. Colleagues from other organizations had noticed the same trend. I wanted to know what was happening with Black men in corporations, the impact of racism on their career development, and how their experiences compared with their White male and Black female counterparts. Fourteen Black men agreed to participate in the study. The men, ages 35-55, occupied mid- to senior-level management positions across various industries in corporate America.
Roadblocks to career development.
The four roadblocks to career development that surfaced during the study included:
- Stereotypes attributed to Black men
- Subjective and disparate career development practices
- Different opportunity structure for the acquisition of sociopolitical capital
- Changing priorities in companies’ workplace diversity targets
The roadblocks were not just vague perceptions held by Black men. Rather, these social rules and practices were structures embedded in the organizational systems that were created and sustained by individuals within the system, consciously or unconsciously. These structures served as a basis of decision making, behaviors and other outcomes that produced inequities in career development.
In this post, I will discuss the first two roadblocks: stereotypes attributed to Black men and subjective and disparate career development practices. Actual quotes from participants provide a view into how these men confronted stereotypes and dispelled myths. Names are changed to provide anonymity.
Stereotypes attributed to Black men.
The roadblock mentioned most frequently by participants was the negative stereotypes attributed to Black men. Over 70% of the participants shared at least one experience where they were denied employment, promotion or inclusion in a social network due to negative stereotypes. Some participants spoke elusively while others were quite explicit.
Alfred, a 42-year-old senior manager in manufacturing, discussed how he always worked so that no one could put him in that “stereotype.” When I asked him what stereotype, he stated: “The thug, pimp, womanizer, lazy.” When I asked Alfred if he thought these stereotypes impacted his experiences in corporate America, he stated emphatically: “Without a doubt. Without a doubt, sure. You‘re not given the opportunities.”
Henry, a 50-year-old vice president in media production stated, “I think the negative impact [of being Black and male in corporate America] has been constantly battling the myths, the stereotypes that exist for African American males…not smart enough to handle responsibility, not able to manage people well, not able to handle anger – just not qualified to be executive material.”
The caricature of the angry Black man was cited often by participants and was seen as a stereotype that must be dispelled if participants were to be successful in their career development. Alfred said, “We’re not allowed to get angry because once you‘re angry, then the label will be ‘angry Black man’ or ‘angry Black woman’ and that’s career suicide.”
Bill, a 49-year-old vice president in human resources shared several stories about how characterizations of Black men were discussed during promotions review conversations – a more direct example of how stereotypes impacted career outcomes. He stated:
“I think back to being in HR meetings or discussions where too often they were talking about African Americans and there would be these discussions of their style, and the reason why we can‘t give them the next job is, they are arrogant, or they are, and it‘s the same things that the White males tend to get viewed as being confident about, so confidence becomes arrogance. And, I saw that very specifically in some discussions about some African American males who had gotten to be in fairly senior jobs, and around discussions about their next steps. They got viewed as having more flash than substance, and the interesting part about that is we would always have to challenge them. Well, let‘s go to the record, what are the results in their business unit? Well, the results are good, but this person is so flamboyant. Well, let‘s not get into how they got there, and that‘s a different style they have, but the results are there. Let‘s talk about leadership; let‘s talk about results; and in many cases someone has to push that, but I am thinking okay, why does it always come up with us.”
From the participants’ stories, stereotypes informed the actions of both the participants and others (i.e., their White counterparts, managers, etc.) driving home the point that these roadblocks are created and sustained by individuals within the organizational system.
Subjective and disparate career development practices.
Within corporate systems, career development practices include a company‘s policies or practices involving such programs as performance and succession management; hiring, promotion and termination; and selection for key assignments and developmental experiences. The decisions regarding these practices are made largely by a few human resources and business leaders. Participants remarked that their companies’ practices were not systematized and lacked objectivity, transparency and accountability. In the discussions comparing their career development to their White male counterparts, only two of the 14 participants felt their experiences were comparable to or better than their White male counterparts. Several participants thought their careers progressed equally with their counterparts until they reached a certain point.
David, a 52-year-old vice president in management consulting stated, “What‘s different is that once you achieve a certain level, or at least once I achieved a certain level, I found I lost my sponsorship.” David reflected that White male counterparts have sponsors at much higher levels in the organization than most African Americans. As a result, his White counterparts were able to gain more exposure to senior executives at the highest levels and their career development was able to extend to higher levels.
Henry stated, “My first thought is that it‘s hard to compare the two because I’ve never felt that it was on equal playing grounds. So you can’t necessarily compare point to point. The measuring stick for me I think is always different. I try not to compare really, because if you compare you piss yourself off, you really do.” When I inquired as to what was different, Henry said, “exposure.” “You would be fighting to gain exposure to certain things, certain business skills earlier in your career, getting exposure to the senior level of thinking for executives.”
Mike, the youngest of the participants at 35 years of age, also commented that who gets promoted and when they get promoted were sometimes not equitable. In comparing his career development to his White counterparts, Mike stated:
“I started at square one and I’ve had to work my way up to where I am. I’ve come across some people who I think they’ve come into the game on the fourth floor. They never had to go to the basement and work their way up. They came in on the fourth floor.”
Martin, a 51-year-old vice president in transportation and logistics, used a metaphor to describe how Black men‘s career development differed from their White counterparts. He said, “Black men and White men are running the career development race, and both are advancing in comparison to other participants on the track with them. However, when Black men look across they see their White male counterparts running on a different track.” In essence, their career development is not the same and will never be the same because they are inherently separate and unequal.
As it relates to subjectivity in career development decisions, many of the participants stated there was no intentionality to developing a diverse talent pool. The majority of high visibility projects and assignments went to White males. The high potential and succession talent pools were overwhelmingly White and male. Gordon stated that his 100-year-old company had promoted its first Black female vice president the previous year. He also summarized what many other participants shared, “The process of determining participants for leadership development is arbitrary and concealed. They [human resources and select leaders] go behind a black curtain and decide who is going to go where.”
Bill stated that some of the biggest inhibitors to Black men’s career development are weak succession plans, few assignments to strategic roles and profit and loss accountability, and not getting selected to attend leadership development programs. Without those types of career development experiences on their resume, Black men are excluded from consideration into executive ranks.
The problem is not Black men.
Let me be clear about three things. First, I do not promulgate any idea that the problem is with Black men. Stereotypes and inequitable career development practices are structural roadblocks that take the support of many within a system to sustain. Second, the experiences these men shared may not reflect the experiences of all Black men in corporate America. I tried to capture themes that emerged from the men’s narratives such that these were not isolated perceptions and experiences. Third, let it not be construed that these Black men were making excuses. They have successful careers. They were simply sharing candidly their perceptions and direct and indirect experiences with negative stereotypes and subjective and disparate career development practices. They were conveying how these experiences impacted their career development. I will share later in the series the strategies these men employed to mitigate the impact of these roadblocks on their careers.
The experiences these men shared may not reflect the experiences of all Black men in corporate America.
Create more equitable workplaces.
What can we learn from these men’s experiences and what can we do to create more equitable workplaces? Inequities in systems are not always created with malicious intent. However, we have a social responsibility to recognize and correct structural impediments that oppress one group while advantaging another. We can create more equitable workplaces and career development experiences by challenging stereotypes and assumptions, just as Bill did during the promotions review meeting. We can examine whether career development decisions are indeed subjective and made under a cloak of secrecy. We can advocate making those processes more objective and transparent. Fellow human resources practitioners have a huge role to play here. We can be more intentional in our people processes so that we widen the talent pool to include more diverse populations in strategic career enhancing activities. We can create accelerated development solutions for women and minorities that move them through the leadership pipeline at a faster pace. The lessons we learn from the 14 men are instructive in designing workplaces where all people can thrive.
When we know better, we do better.