"I have seen in certain situations, although the [white executives] try to disguise it, African American men and women and other minorities being dealt a little harsher treatment. I know they're held to different standards. I've seen two people with the same sales quotas, and all sorts of excuses were given for the nonminority not making his numbers, but when it came to the minority, they're saying "You should make that number.' Yet he was given the worst territory out there."

-- Anonymous Senior IT Executive

Perhaps you think the scene described above took place decades ago, before the Supreme Court, Congress and the civil rights movement began to hammer away at the foundations of racism in our society. Wrong.

There's no way, you whisper, that could happen today in my company. Wrong.

Maybe you shift uneasily in your chair, having observed or heard about that sort of racial incident at one time in your career. It made you uncomfortable, even outraged, but then your third afternoon meeting came up and you were flying out of town the next morning, so it gradually faded.

Fortunately, egregious examples of racial prejudice in the workplace are much less common than they were 20 or 30 years ago. By all counts, companies are making commendable efforts to diversify and rid their workplaces of blatant discrimination. Midlevel minority executives populate the corporate landscape today in increasing numbers.

But the color of one's skin all too often plays a role in who gets promoted to senior management.

The numbers are shocking -- in a country where African Americans make up 12.9 percent of the population, they make up less than 2.5 percent of senior-level managers in the private sector. But perhaps just as surprising are the barriers that still exist in corporate America, more than three decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in the workplace. That was a milestone in the civil rights movement, and gave minorities a stepping stone by which they slowly gained entry into the house that white corporate America built. But it didn't put an end to the de facto segregation that still makes it difficult for blacks and other groups to gain true equality with whites, especially in management.

Sometimes the glass ceiling that blocks minorities from becoming senior-level executives appears practically invisible. Other times the obstacles to upward mobility rear their ugly heads in the form of slights, racial jokes and unfair practices that should make anyone reading this article cringe. If you're one of those white executives, maybe you'll take a look at a snapshot of your own senior-level officers and ask yourself: What's wrong with this picture?

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 that."

Because of these realities, blacks often feel like outsiders. And that's a problem when it comes time to discover the unwritten rules that govern who rises to the clubby, white, senior-executive level.

Harvey Coleman, who left IBM Corp. in the 1970s after crashing into a glass ceiling, has spent the last 20 years trying to decipher these rules. Coleman, a diversity management expert and president of Coleman Management Consultants Inc. in Atlanta, authored a book about the subject, Empowering Yourself: The Organizational Game Revealed (Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1996). He says that to successfully scale the ranks of management, regardless of ethnicity, you must learn the rules and play by them. Many employees can probably offer at least a couple of rules. They may range from the obvious -- don't get caught bad-mouthing the boss -- to the more idiosyncratic -- never shoot a lower score on the golf course than your ultracompetitive boss.

But those rules don't appear in any corporate manual.

Carl Williams gives some examples of those unwritten codes. "Believe it or not, in some organizations it's the way you dress. [Or it may be] showing deference to certain people in certain parts of the organization, for example, Joe Smith, who has been here for 90 years and knows all the skeletons in everybody's closet," he says. Williams also notes the importance of being perceived as a social person, given the value corporate America places on handshakes and conviviality.

Sharon Collins, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, offers additional obstacles that African Americans must overcome in the business world. One is that they are more likely to be labeled as failures if they make errors. "Blacks have to toe the line more and be aware of what's at stake. They get labbeled very quickly because they're different," she says. Another barrier blocking blacks' advancement up the management hierarchy: their deployment in "racialized" jobs, Collins' term for positions created during the 1960s and 1970s to deal with African American issues. In her book, Black Corporate Executives: The Making and Breaking of a Black Middle Class (Temple University Press, 1997), she writes that many of these jobs -- for example, those dealing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines or community relations -- are dead ends when it comes to achieving top-level positions. Over time those positions marginalize the skills of the job holders, hurting their chances to compete for top jobs in functions from which most senior decision makers are chosen.

Group Strength

How are minorities working to get around these barriers to management, these byzantine rules that can be as difficult to grasp as a feather on a blustery day, or as in-your-face as a round in the ring with Mike Tyson?

Affinity groups allow blacks and other minority IT executives (see "SHPE Shape," below) to make connections that help them grow both personally and professionally. One example comes in the BDPA (www.bdpa.org), which was founded by two African American IT professionals in 1975 to address the low representation of minorities in the computer industry. Today the group has 45 chapters and over 2,000 members in the United States and Canada. One of its major goals is filling the IT pipeline with qualified black executives.

"If you're an African American, you don't have an inside track, a close friend or a relative to help. You have to hit the ground running. BDPA gives you that opportunity," says Clifford Clarke, assistant vice president for annuity operations year 2000 at Lincoln Financial Group in Fort Wayne, Ind. Clarke gained valuable leadership and business skills while serving as president of his local BDPA chapter. "[Being a BDPA leader] allows you to make mistakes without it being a career-terminating move. In a company, a mistake could cost you your job."

BDPA members also talk glowingly about the networking opportunities available through the organization. Les Pearson, director of information systems quality assurance at the Edward Jones investment brokerage company in St. Louis, landed his present job after attending a recent national conference and having his name dropped to one of the recruiters there.

A BDPA conference is more than just a place to shake hands, however. At its 1999 annual national conference in Atlanta, which brought together professionals and college and high school students, seminar topics included, "The Role of the OLAP Server in a Data Warehousing Solution" and "Black America and the Digital Economy: Deal Us In!" The conference also hosts an annual high school computer competition and offers technical and professional development workshops.

Will You Be My Mentor?

R.P. Scherer's Edmonson knows how valuable mentoring relationships can be. He cites two people who were very influential in helping him advance at different points in his career. At Scott Paper Co., Darwin John, the CIO, served as his mentor; and at AlliedSignal Inc., CIO Kathy Britton White played that role. Edmonson's mentors provided advice and counsel, helped him understand the nuances of corporate politics and provided him with senior-level contacts outside their companies.

The Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF) is a group of senior- level, African American IT executives who meet regularly to share experiences, to network and to provide sounding boards for one another. The ITSMF formed seven years ago to mentor up-and-coming African Americans. "We saw a need to assist those folks [who desired] a career in IT and wanted to reach some of their higher objectives," says Carl Williams, one off the group's founders. "It was also formed so many of us could give back to society by volunteering to mentor these young folks."

The ITSMF mentoring program began last fall. Through an application process, the group chose four midlevel executives and paired them with four senior-level executives. Edmonson's mentee is Lincoln Financial Group's Clarke, who hopes to bounce ideas off of Edmonson, talk about the challenges Edmonson has faced during his career and to get advice as to what professional courses he should take. Another benefit of the mentoring program is that all the participants are African American. Though most of the people interviewed for this article didn't think it was necessary to have an African American mentor, some did appreciate being able to share with members of their own race some of the business world's challenges, whether it be how they reacted to an off-color joke or how they dealt with being passed over for a promotion.

For blacks seeking black mentors in their own companies, however, it boils down to a numbers game. And there aren't many minority executives calling the shots in large companies. Thus, most blacks accept the fact that, more often than not, their company mentors will be white. But finding a willing white mentor can be as frustrating as trying to nab sales help at Home Depot. The harsh truth is that white senior executives are often more comfortable taking other whites under their wings. "Whites tend to be more conservative and to mentor their own, unless there's a star, and that star has to shine pretty bright to become a mentee," says Collins. "Or the white executive has to be brave."

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