Why are Black Women Missing from Corporate Leadership?

To understand our absence, academic and corporate settings must begin with who enters the pipeline.

From Apple and Google to PepsiCo and Estée Lauder, the past several months have seen corporations making high-dollar public commitments and launching new initiatives to combat racism in the workplace and in society at large. Still, with recent controversial comments from the CEO of Wells Fargo about a supposed lack of Black talent to hire from, as well as recent findings that systemic racism has cost the U.S. economy $16.1 trillion and 6.1 million jobs, it is clear that systemic racism in the corporate world is pervasive and will require long-term, concerted efforts to uproot. However, the question remains:

First, it begins with an understanding of the reality for one of the most underrepresented and systematically oppressed groups, Black women, who live at the intersection of racism and sexism and other marginalized identities, attempting to forge paths into these spaces of power and influence.

Education

First, let’s look at the rate of completion of undergraduate degrees in a few of the fields outlined earlier: economics, math, accounting, and finance (for a list of the specific majors we looked at, please see our methodology).

Aside from the stark disparity between undergraduate degrees awarded to white men and women, as well as these white degree holders compared to minority groups, the number of Black women completing degrees in these fields is steadily declining (despite slight increases in completion for both Asian American and Hispanic men and women).

The decline is cause for concern, considering that the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey shows that Black women make up approximately 6.68% of the total U.S. population, but degree completion data shows in 2019 that Black women made up only 2.5% of those completing degrees in economics, finance, accounting, or math overall.

Careers

Now that we have taken a look at who is majoring in these subjects, another question arises — what are the downstream implications of the low levels of Black women in careers like economics, finance, math, and accounting?

In the previous section, we saw that undergraduate degrees in these fields were dominated by white men and women, and unfortunately, we see a similar pattern in the career data. As shown above, the proportion of these jobs held by each demographic group has stayed mostly flat over the past five years, despite stated efforts by large companies, and by the financial services sector in general, toward increased hiring of historically underrepresented groups. Looking specifically at Black women, we see a trend similar to what we found among undergraduate degrees: Black women’s representation in finance, economics, math, and accounting careers is not increasing, and from 2017 to 2018, there was a sharp decrease in Black women working in these fields.

It is easy to see that the low rates of Black women graduating with degrees in these fields has a limiting impact on the diversification of related occupations; companies typically look to related majors or coursework in making hiring decisions. But it also goes the other way: Black women may be discouraged by seeing recruiting materials or company demographics that do not reflect the diversity of our country, leading them away from these career paths in the first place.

COVID-19 Effect

Clearly, we have a pipeline problem, which has likely worsened since the global pandemic. Black women have been more likely than others to think about downsizing their careers or leaving the workforce entirely due to the pandemic. The latest employment numbers from October 2020 show that Black women currently have an unemployment rate of 12.7%, higher than any other group of women than any other group of women and a far cry from the overall 8.9% unemployment rate. Beyond feeling the disproportionate impact of coronavirus evinced by higher rates of deaths of loved ones, Black women also have been grappling with the emotional burden of racial violence within a justice system that does not enable justice for them — as shown by no charges pressed against the police officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor.

The confluence of all these factors means that the corporate world is at a critical juncture to think about what’s at stake — decades of efforts to improve diversity and introduce supportive measures into the workplace. While the current trend is concerning, we can also choose to see this moment as an opportunity to invest in keeping underrepresented groups in the workforce and building pathways into academic and corporate settings.

Barriers for Black Women in Economics and Related Fields

Research shows over time that the following constraints contribute to low participation of [Black] women in male-dominated fields, such as economics:

  • Access to information: A recent paper from Drs. Gary Hoover and Ebonya Washington, co-Chairs of the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Minorities in the Economics Profession, and Amanda Bayer, a Diversity Equity and Inclusion consultant to the Federal Reserve Board, finds students identify that access to more information about careers in economics and what economists do is an asset in recruiting students to the field. Seventy-three percent of Black women who attended the Sadie Collective conference in 2020 shared that they “did not feel prepared for a career in economics”. After attending the conference, which includes skill building workshops and panels, a post-survey showed that 94% of respondents felt more prepared.
  • Discrimination in the field: In ‘It was a Mistake for me to Choose This Field.’ Dr. Lisa D. Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman analyze the results from a professional climate survey administered by the American Economics Association, the largest organization for economists. The survey revealed that Black women consistently feel the brunt of discrimination in the economics profession. Specifically, Black women take the most measures, on average, to avoid possible harassment, discrimination, or unfair/disrespectful treatment, as compared to white and Asian respondents regardless of gender. Furthermore, 29 percent of Black women reported that they have experienced discrimination in promotion while nearly 40 percent report experiencing discrimination in pay.
  • Lack of role models: According to the American Economic Association, less than 0.4% of those getting PhDs in economics were Black women — it is hard to be what you cannot see. Dr. Danila Sera and her co-authors also found that the role model effect is significant for women in economics. When asked at the Sadie Collective second annual conference “have you ever met a Black women economist?” 33.5% of respondents shared they had not. Moreover, only 2.2% of tenured or tenure-track economics faculty identified as Black in the 2018–2019 academic year.

Other contributors worth noting are high school education systems that do not expose students to math for careers and majors in the quantitative sciences. While this issue starts early in the pipeline, attracting talent at the undergraduate level proves to be valuable for addressing the factors listed above, especially through organizations like The Sadie Collective.

The Value of The Sadie Collective

We need organizations to support the pipeline for and advancement of Black women talent. One such organization is The Sadie Collective, the only non-profit organization centered on improving the pipeline and pathways for Black women in economics, finance, data science, and policy.

Named after Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first African-American to earn her doctoral degree in economics, the Sadie Collective actively collects and utilizes data to tell a story around this issue through research, social media, and external advocacy. Our organization has also created a network of nearly 1000 Black women and allies while organizing the only international conference for Black women in economics and related fields, which has welcomed leading economists and policymakers such as first female Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Dean Bridget Terry Long, and the Urban Institute’s President, Sarah Rosen Wartell.

Organizations like the Sadie Collective, such as Black Girls in Boardrooms, which offers mentoring support and workshops to Black women in corporate, should be important to stakeholders throughout the broader ecosystem of universities, employers, and advocacy organizations working to ensure that pathways into these fields are accessible to all. Other existing initiatives are bit more specific in their approach such as the American Economic Association’s Summer Program, which focuses on getting more minorities into PhD programs in Economics.

With that said, we see two key ways for corporate entities to begin systematically addressing the pipeline problem:

  1. Adopting the Black Women Best Framework: Coined by Janelle Jones, Managing Policy Director at Groundwork Collaborative, “Black Women Best” is a framework that says if we structure the economy in a way that makes sure Black women are doing well — elevating them through policies like paid sick leave or targeted small business funding — the rest of us benefit. Adopting this policy is critical considering that Black women are at the core of our economy and have clearly felt the disproportionate effects of COVID-19.
  2. Allocating Annual Funding for Black Women Led Initiatives That Support The Pipeline: The best way to help Black and Brown women in economics, finance, and math is to create a series of programs — from elementary school all the way into the corporate world — that allow women to be exposed to these fields early on in life and visualize a pathway into a steady career. Too often, underrepresented groups do not get exposed to these subjects and potential careers until college, at which point they may have trouble navigating into academia and the corporate world. Organizations to consider aside from The Sadie Collective include Black Girls in Boardrooms and Corporate in Color.

Black women and other underrepresented groups already have a challenging time breaking into fields where their voices truly matter and where they have the power to uplift communities as a whole. As shown by the results of the 2020 Election, when Black women are equipped and empowered to change our world for the better, we choose to do so — everytime. All of us, especially the corporate world, are at a turning point in which who we choose to center in our boardrooms and policymaking efforts can and will radically change the outcomes for everyone’s social and economic wellbeing. That said, let’s center Black women.

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The Sadie Collective is an inclusive community that recognizes that gender is non-binary. As such, we were recently informed that women and womxn serve the same purpose in being inclusive terms that include trans- and non-Binary folx. Therefore, we have decided to make the change to say women instead of womxn.

Thank you to Hamilton Place Strategies with assisting with our methdology and analysis. If you would like to specifically cover the Sadie Collective’s white paper on corporate diversity, please reach out to us using this link.

Addressing the pipeline and pathway for Black women in economics & related fields.

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