Wise Inclusion Strategies for Equity - The Blog

W.I.S.E. words and strategies for the equity-minded leader

(Still) Hidden Figures: why African American women still face barriers to career advancement, and what organizational leaders can do about it.

black women leaders career advancement dei diversity equity inclusion leadership development women leaders women of color leaders Jan 12, 2023

"You, sir. You are the boss. You just have to act like one".


If you haven’t already gone to see the movie Hidden Figures, that depicts the trials and triumphs of three NASA African American mathematicians intricately involved in the success of the United States’ race to the moon in the late 1950s thru the 1960s, in spite of racism and sexism, do yourself and your organization a favor and go see it. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will highlight some of the key takeaways that have relevant present-day implications for individuals and organizations who seek to create and sustain a diverse and equitable organization. Take for instance the opening quote for this article, it comes from a scene where one of NASA's key division leaders realizes that policies which keep women out of important and timely decision-making stymies his team's progress, thus endangering space missions.


When he asks aloud how and by whom these archaic and counterproductive rules can be changed, Katherine Goble Johnson, one of the brilliant African American female mathematicians, replies that he can. This, it turns out, is one of my favorite dialogues in the film, and speaks directly to the inquiry and action I intend for this article to spark in organizational leaders. I should also mention that I conducted a study in 2013 that sought to learn if there are organizational barriers to the advancement of professional women of Color to executive leadership positions, and offered actionable recommendations to address these barriers. 


The comparison and contrast, and quite frankly the stark similarities between conditions and practices of the eras explored in Hidden Figures and those of my recent study findings, prompted me to write this piece with the intention of sparking awareness, inquiry, and action.  As depicted in Hidden Figures and workplaces around the country (still), hindering the recruitment and advancement of a diverse and equitable workforce has adverse economic, innovation, and social justice consequences. This piece focuses on a subset of diversity, African American women (I use Black interchangeably), who, despite the change in sociopolitical climate and de jure discrimination since the era in which the film is set, are still relatively hidden figures in key managerial and executive leadership positions today. Here are some reasons why, and what you as an organizational leader can do about it.


(Still) Prevalent Barriers and How to Address Them

Stretch Opportunities & Mentor-Champions


Despite great educational attainment gains, Black women still are grossly underrepresented compared to their male and non-Black female colleagues in positions of highest earning and influence in organizations. Equally important is that they are not prevalent in mid-management "stepping stone" positions that prepare them for these executive leadership positions.


My research on career paths of successful leaders often cites a combination of "stretch goals/assignments" and a mentor network as key to advancement. That is to say, those who were encouraged (in some cases, insisted) to take on high profile assignments that are "out of class" or cross-divisional/departmental got not only a boost in professional experience, but also to their visibility (being seen, and not "hidden") and their confidence.


Likewise, mentors are helpful to all aspiring leaders, but are absolutely invaluable to Black women who as mentioned above, are less prevalent in c-suites and executive leadership. For obvious reasons, having an experienced, respected, and well-connected mentor opens up doors and possibilities that might not otherwise be as easily accessible without one. In many cases, a mentor is not just a professional sage, they are an ally and champion who alerts aspiring leaders to career pitfalls and helps them navigate through and around them. Simply put: don't just have an "open door policy", be intentional about being that champion and advocate for a diverse array of aspiring leaders, and model this so as to encourage other leaders in your organization to do the same.


Organizational Culture & Microaggressions


The three main characters in the film experienced de jure discrimination, i.e.: legal barriers to equal and equitable opportunities, enforced segregation, separate and unequal facilities, etc. They also experienced de facto discrimination and barriers to advancement such as exclusion, undermining, underestimating, and being denied access and visibility. Many women of Color, particularly African American women, still face these de facto barriers across industries, whether they are well-represented numerically or not. Microaggressions, or seemingly innocuous yet pervasive and damaging slights of a racial and/or gender nature, are commonplace for many Black women. These can be conscious or unconscious and manifest through unnecessary scrutiny and curiosity about cultural differences and appearance, and/or behavior that undermines, ignores, and excludes Black women from a seat at the table. Microaggressions and implicit and/or unconscious bias within an organizational culture can and have made it more difficult for some Black women to advance. Some to the point where they experience undue stress and take their talents elsewhere, resulting in detours on their career path, and expensive attrition to an organization. Sure, there are notable examples of Black women who have risen to top earning and influence positions, but much of this ascension has not been without the slights that many, if not most of their non-Black, non-female counterparts do not have to persevere through. The point being that having a healthy organizational climate supports holistic cohesion and productivity. Setting and continually assessing your organization's climate to identify and address bias and exclusion, as well as deliberate and operationalized modeling of how diversity is valued within your organization, is essential to optimal organizational health and sustainability in a global market.


 Succession Management & Leader Preparation


No doubt you've been to your fair share of retirement cake-and-punch fetes in the past two to three years, you might have even pondered or planned your own professional exit strategy. That means you have or will have some impending vacancies within your organization, does this represent a crisis or an opportunity? That all depends on if you have given careful thought and planning to not only which direction your organization is headed, but who will be ready to assume the helm. A character in the film laments that following the resignation of a past manager almost a year prior, she has been doing the work of a supervisor but hasn't been assigned the title or pay by one. Foreseeing technological and industry advances, she avails herself of the training necessary to be ready for management if she is given the chance. This highlights another area of disparity with regard to compensation across demographic groups, a topic I won't expand upon here other than to say that this still exists. Assuming that you intend to have a diverse and equitable workforce, you cannot have a diverse pool from which you can recruit and promote if no such pipeline exists. Likewise, without mentors or models, aspiring African American female leaders may not know what core competencies are needed to advance nor where to attain them, assuming they have the means to access professional development opportunities. Don't know where to attract diverse talent to fill those current and near-future managerial and executive leadership vacancies? Grow your own. Identify the core competencies you need now (and in the foreseeable future), identify existing and/or recruit a diverse employee pool of aspiring leaders, and invest in them. Whether you have the means to outsource professional development, or you start with no-cost executive shadowing for diverse aspiring leaders to glean institutional memory from knowledgeable short-timers, make a succession management plan and execute it.

Prepare to Launch


Any or all of this sounds overwhelming to ensure your organization does not have barriers that disenfranchise aspiring African American female managers and executive leaders? Committed to and value a diverse and equitable organization, but you're not convinced that one person can be the change agent to champion and operationalize a diverse and inclusive succession management strategy? Remember, you are the boss. You just have to act like one.