Women of Color Execs Reveal Their Strategies

Successful women of color executives need to seek out mentors, develop an instinct for opportunities, tap their personal resilience and pick their battles to move up the corporate ladder. And remember: The higher they go, the whiter it gets.

Linda Parker Pennington

(WOMENSENEWS)-For Linda Parker Pennington, 46, principal in the San Francisco office of Andersen LLP consulting firm, rising in the corporate world as an African American woman took a lot of careful planning, steadfastness and proactive behavior. She found mentors, mostly men, who helped guide her through the political ins and outs of her firm. In the past, she sought assistance from a personal coach to help her define her long-term goals in the business world.

“Institutionalized, subtle racism is real, and women of color have to choose their battles carefully and work harder in the corporate world to really prove themselves,” said Pennington, who last year co-founded an organization called Women of Color Action Network, a statewide networking group for professional women that now has about 300 members.

“You also have to be direct and honest and show others that women of color, particularly black women, are not the stereotype of emotional and angry.”

Pennington echoed the findings in the latest report by Catalyst called “Women of Color Executives: Their Voices, Their Journeys.” The study by the New York City-based group found that women of color executives wishing to move up the corporate ladder need to seek out mentors, develop a knack for finding opportunities within their jobs and possess a strong sense of personal resilience.

The research also found that exclusionary and risk-averse corporate cultures make it hard for minority women professionals to break through what the report termed the concrete ceiling.

In fact, women of color are scarce in any company's top jobs. These women make up only 1.3 percent of corporate officers in 400 of the Fortune 500 list, according to the most recent research from Catalyst, a national non-profit organization that conducts research to help advance women in business. This new survey-which features six women's individual stories and an analysis of 35 in-depth interviews-is the latest in Catalyst's ongoing research into women of color, which began in 1999.

“We found that women of color still find exclusion from networks of powerful colleagues,” said Katherine Giscombe, Ph.D., Catalyst's senior director of research. “Those who did move up did so because they found mentors, who were usually white men who placed them on a highly visible project or assignment.”

It's Hard to Find Women of Color Mentors for Women of Color-They're Scarce

Often though, it was hard for these women to find other women of color as mentors because they are so scarce. But, they were able to move beyond this, get a feel for what their employers expected of them and then be as resilient and strategic as possible to move beyond any barriers, Giscombe said in an interview.

Claire Huang“It's lonely in the corporate world for women of color. They continue to struggle with issues of credibility,” observed Sandra Hernandez Adams, president of the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Adams, 55, president of Strategic Micro Partners Inc., a Miami computer consultancy company specializing in law firms, said in an interview that women of color trying to rise in corporate America or those growing their own businesses still must overcome many challenges and misconceptions.

For instance, Adams said, there is a mistaken belief that minorities in business only want to seek out clients or customers within their ethnic or racial group.

“Latina business owners want to work with all kinds of clients and make money and be successful just like anyone else in business,” Adams says. “And, even today, I still notice that if I say my name is Sandy Hernandez, I get one kind of response. If I say my name is Sandy Adams, I get a totally different reaction from those I deal with in the business world.”

Giscombe recommended that women of color be very careful in selecting the companies in which they would like to advance. They should examine annual reports and see if any senior officers are women of color, an indication of a hospitable work environment with advancement possibilities. They should also review a firm's human resources manual to see if diversity programs are in place. About 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies have such programs, estimated John Challenger, president of Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based international outplacement firm.

Be Open-Minded About Mentors: Very Different Backgrounds Can Be Helpful

“However, some companies just pay lip service to this, while others really do try to enforce this,” Challenger said. “What it boils down to is, the more people who get to know you well and whom you really connect with in a company, the more chances you will have to move up into a position that you want.”

Once working for a chosen company, women of color should look for one or even several mentors to help guide them through the corporate maze, Giscombe said.

“These can be senior people or even just colleagues you connect with,” she said. “They can be other women of color, but don't just limit yourself. Sometimes someone who seems so different from you may have some similarities or something special in common, if you probe a bit.”

For Rosalyn Mallet, 46, senior vice president of human resources at the Carlson Cos., a Minneapolis hotel and restaurant conglomerate, finding mentors has been key to her success over the years.

Rosalyn Mallet“I had two or more mentors very early on in my career-some men, some women-who helped me set up a whole network of people I could turn to,” said Mallet, who is African American. “Also, knowing what my best skills and interests were helped me target how I wanted to move up and who could advise me best.”

Claire Huang, senior vice president at American Express Financial Advisors, said that she has been helped in her career by finding informal, occasional “sponsors” at her jobs, as opposed to mentors for the longer term. These have been people to whom she has showed her work and whom she has asked for feedback and advice on what could be improved. These are not necessarily steady relationships, but sponsorship meetings can take place two to three times a year. She has met sponsors by asking bosses to introduce her to helpful people. Huang currently has two sponsors at American Express.

“This way, you get to show off some of your best work to key people. You get good exposure for yourself and make some valuable contacts,” said Huang, 38, a Chinese American who divides her time between American Express's New York City and Minneapolis offices.

In addition to these suggestions, women of color need to be politically astute and not take issue with every perceived and real personal slight, Giscombe said. “Unfortunately, the more you move up in most companies, the less room you have to show your own personal style and the more you have to conform to a white standard. Be ready to accept this early on.”

Laura Koss-Feder is a free-lance business writer in Oceanside, N.Y. She is an expert on small businesses and career and workplace topics. She has written for The New York Times, Business Week, Money, Time and Family Circle.

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