Here we are in the middle of the 2020 edition of Black History Month, which means it’s a time to look forward as well as to look back. BHM was heralded in by President Gerald Ford back in 1976. As recent as this seems in relation to the long history of the nation, the beginnings of Black History month actually go back over 100 years, through several iterations before settling into what it has become today. Yes, I chose the word “settling” by design and it will become more obvious as one reads on.
You see, Black History Month celebrates the accomplishments and watershed moments of noted African Americans such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou and Arthur Ashe; just to name a few. And while BHM celebrates the achievements African Americans of yore in social activism, sports, literature and other life endeavors, there is not as much to cheer about when it comes to the upper echelons of Corporate America – most notability the C-Suite of Fortune 500 companies. As of this writing, African American business people comprise a mere 3.2% of CEOs at F500 organizations. If one is to focus on the representation of African Americans in the senior-most leadership position today, the four (4) CEO’s of F500 companies stand out for many of the wrong reasons. As paltry of a showing this is, the numbers, incredulously, are actually trending down – from a high of seven a little over a decade ago.
Which such a disparity of Black CEOs compared to their white counterparts, one has to ask the reason why. One thing for sure, it is not ambition holding back African American business leaders. According to Pooja Jain-Link, executive vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation Black employees have high aspirations and are more likely to be more ambitious than their white counterparts. Yet even with these high ambitions, some 20% of African Americans don’t believe that someone of their race or ethnicity would achieve a position of leadership with their company. This compares to 3% for White Americans.
Why have Diversity and Inclusion programs failed to grow and promote more African American C-Suite leaders? Well, there doesn’t seem to be a readily available or clear cut answer to this question. Black professionals say that when it comes to diversity and inclusion, more emphasis has been put on other groups such as women when it comes to opening doors; which is where the bulk of talent recruitment effort (and dollar) is being spent. But there has to be more to it than that. More attention has to be paid to African Americans in the workforce, on the ground…where things happen and can be measured in order to effect meaningful and sustainable change. African Americans demonstrate a near parity in skills with their white counterparts, yet with their lower representation in the executive ranks, advancement to the C-Suite in direct proportion to that of their white counterparts continues to be an uphill battle.
Black History Month should fill us with pride as we pause to reflect on the achievements of many African Americans. However, it should also create an impetus to double our efforts and reverse the metrics that have been trending in the wrong direction for too long. Diversity and Inclusion has come a long way in the corporate environment, but as statistics show us, there is a ways to go. This should top-of-mind during Black History Month as the goal should be diversity AND inclusion!