Top of Corporate Ladder Still Eludes Women of Color

Women of color are making progress in the corporate world, but without mentoring, most aren't making it to the top rungs of the ladder, a new report finds.

Quinn H. Tran

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)-As the co-founder and chief marketing and sales officer for an Internet content-management firm, Quinn H. Tran is one of a small number of Asian American women to have reached such a pinnacle of her profession. She did it by being smart and talented and hardworking. But she also progressed with the support of mentors. And when space wasn't made for her on a particular corporate ladder, she wasn't afraid to move out to move up.

Her formula for success is right in sync with the results of a study entitled “Women of Color in Corporate Management: Three Years Later,” recently released by Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit research and advisory group that works to advance women in business. It shows that more than half of the 368 study participants-female corporate managers with African, Hispanic and Asian heritages-experienced salary growth and promotions from 1998 to 2001, especially when they were willing to switch to employers more committed to diversity in the workplace.

Specifically, 57 percent of the study respondents were promoted and their overall income was up 37 percent, from an average salary of $81,300 in 1998 to $111,700 in 2001. At the same time, the majority of participants said they perceived a decline in opportunities for senior leadership positions and felt pessimistic about their prospects for further advancement with current employers, an outlook buttressed by the fact that only six of this year's Fortune 500 companies have a female chief executive officer. Only one of those, Andrea Jung of Avon Products, Inc., is a woman of color.

“The women in this study are clearly taking charge of their careers,” says Catalyst President Sheila Wellington. “This is a call to action to companies. These women know the value they bring to organizations and, if their current employers fall short, many are willing to find employers that are actively working to create workplaces where their contributions will be valued.”

Ella LJ Edmondson Bell, an associate professor of business administration at Dartmouth and the co-author of “Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity,” says the findings are not new. Catalyst conducted a similar study released in 1999. But Bell said the latest report does “suggest that women need to be very entrepreneurial within a company” and that “companies have gotten a lot savvier putting mentoring programs in place.”

Katherine Giscombe, director of the research, says the predominant factor for the women's success was a greater emphasis on networking and mentoring. “In all our studies having a mentor is pretty much a No. 1 factor,” she says. Crediting a recent surfeit of publications and talk show debates on the topic for raising awareness, Giscombe points out that the number of women in the study who had mentor relationships increased from 35 percent to 58 percent, with African American women topping the field with 62 percent reporting mentors.

African Americans also reported having more white male mentors than before, suggesting that these men are perhaps viewing African American female co-workers with a greater appreciation of their talent and input.

Mentors ‘Channeled Me to the Right Assignments'

But Bell notes that “sometimes mentors can open a door or not.” She emphasizes the importance of what she terms a “sponsor”-someone in the upper echelons of a corporation who can give a minority woman both a “plum” assignment and the resources to succeed. “Usually, African American women get the parts of the company that are currently not producing or they plan to faze out,” Bell says.

Tran, 44, says the results jive with what she's observed of women of color in the business world, including her own experiences. “Both male and female business mentors helped me modify my behavior so that I could be perceived to the best effect,” says Tran, now at California-based Knowledge Tek. “They channeled me to the right assignments.”

At the same time, she's had to hurdle past some stereotyping. “As an Asian,” Tran confides with amusement, “people expect me to be quiet and efficient in getting things done and not voice my opinions too strongly. People tend to be surprised, and sometimes shocked, when I have taken a firm position on a decision or issue. It certainly isn't expected of my white male business counterparts.”

Some participants of the Catalyst study say their opportunities are declining due to perceived sexism and bias. One Latina respondent reported: “I'm very underutilized and do not feel a commitment at all for upward mobility of Latinas in this company.” Another respondent expressed a belief that, “my supervisor and his boss were so threatened by me that they kept me under wraps and prevented me from getting exposure.”

Tran says she reached a point with one former employer, Sun Microsystems, where she felt she'd outgrown her position. Examining her prospects within the company, she recalls, “I couldn't see any programs in place for rewarding good performance.”

Nor did she register much attention being paid to diversity. “It was the early '90s,” she says, “and there was not a single woman director.” So when Xerox came knocking at her door offering her the position of vice president and general manager for worldwide operations, off Tran went.

The Catalyst report argues that it's costly for corporations to lose such talent. And when the workplace does not reflect the marketplace, companies are in danger of blunting their competitive edge. As a cautionary note, the report suggests that “a work environment that is viewed as open-one that is not rigidly hierarchical and that allows a variety of behavioral styles-appears to encourage women of color to stay with their organizations.”

Otherwise, as U.S. Census Bureau statistics indicate, more and more women may continue to jump off the corporate ladder to begin their own businesses. According to the Center for Women's Business Research, 1.2 million firms were owned by women of color in 2002. They increased at a rate of 32 percent from 1997 to 2002- four times faster than U.S. firms overall.

As one of those entrepreneurs, Tran intends no glass ceiling to impede her employees' corporate climbs. “It's my obligation to sponsor an environment of openness and diversity,” she says, “and to help others succeed.”

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