Barriers to Advancement
In 1991, Congress created the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission to identify the
obstacles to minority advancement in business. Among the barriers it uncovered, one
stands out: Many corporate leaders perceive minorities differently, and that plays a
key role in who gets promoted. The action may be subtle, even subconscious. A white
senior executive feels more comfortable around the white junior executive, who then
gets the nod over the minority candidate. Or it may be a fully cognizant decision: The
senior executive does not think the minority candidate is the right fit, even though
his credentials may be identical to those of a white candidate. In many cases, not
being the right fit is a euphemism for racial discrimination.
Hold a frank conversation with a black, Hispanic or Asian executive and odds are
most of them will tell you they believe whites are most comfortable promoting whites.
Is that surprising? It shouldn't be. Take a look around the room at your next board
meeting or the next conference you attend -- in most cases, minority faces will be few
and far between.
"My biggest challenge has been overcoming initial impressions because I have worked
in traditional industries that have had few African Americans," says George Williams, a
senior sales executive in the supply chain solutions group at TRW Inc. in Cleveland and
former president of Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA). In a previous job,
Williams sold software in the materials handling industry. "I used to feel that being
an African American played against me as a sales rep, so when it came down to a
comparison, it was not a competitive edge for me. I think it was more of a discomfort
on my part knowing I was in a competitive situation and had to be better -- much
better -- than my [white] competition."
And as much as white executives might be reluctant to admit it, stereotypes often
come into play. "An African American male of large stature with a deep voice might be
viewed negatively by a white person," explains Carl Williams senior vice president and
CIO of Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, Iowa. "The [white] person might be
intimidated -- people are threatened [by that sort of thing]."
"All people have perceptions of what people should look like, be like, to fill
senior-level roles," says R. Steve Edmonson, CIO and vice president of pharmaceutical
manufacturer R.P. Scherer Corp. in Basking Ridge, N.J. Carl Williams adds, "It's very
simple: Some people are comfortable only when they are bringing people into the
environment that look like them, think like them, act like them. A lot of the
perception is that 'I'm going to have a very difficult time dealing with that
individual because I'm not comfortable with the person.' Some people can't get past