Report: White, Black Women Separated in Boardroom

White women are making far greater strides in the workplace than their African-American female counterparts, according to a recent report. Denise Beckles, a corporate diversity educator, is joined by Cynthia Good, CEO and co-owner of Pink magazine, and Carol Evans, CEO and president of Working Mother Media, to discuss how to level the playing field.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's turn now to our regular feature, Behind Closed Doors, where we talk about sensitive issues that often go under the radar.

Now, you've heard the expression, it's lonely at the top. Well, today, we want to talk about how incredibly lonely it is for the very few women who rise to the top of the corporate ladder, especially black women. There are only 13 women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, none are African-American. And a study by the nonprofit group Catalyst reported that only 5.9 percent of women corporate officer positions were held by African-American women. White women held 89 percent.

So that's one reason an article in the magazine Pink asked the question that caught our attention: Are white women doing their part to help their African-American female colleagues? We want to talk more about that today.

Joining me now is a contributor to the piece in Pink magazine, Denise Beckles. She's a diversity professional at a Fortune 500 company, which we have agreed, at her request, not to name. She's an African-American who's been mentored by a white colleague. Also joining us are the CEO of and co-owner of Pink magazine, Cynthia Good and the CEO and president of Working Mother Media, Carol Evans.

Ladies, welcome. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. CAROL EVANS (Chief Executive Officer and President, Working Mother Media): Thanks for having us on.

Ms. DENISE BECKLES (Contributor, Pink Magazine): Thanks a lot.

Ms. CYNTHIA GOOD (Chief Executive Officer and Co-owner: Pink Magazine): Hello. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Cynthia, I want to start with you, because it's kind of a provocative topic. It's not like the corporate world is overburdened with women of any color in the top ranks. What made you want to publish this piece?

Ms. GOOD: Well, Michel, we really try to do stories for Pink that get to the heart of what women in business are facing and dealing with.

And we do Pink storming sessions once a month, and we - it's all totally and completely off the record, and we always have very high level executive women in these meetings from major companies all over the country. And we're talking seriously, privately, everything is off the record.

And these women were saying, at the end of the day, what really frustrates them is that they don't have the support they'd like to have when moving up through the ranks within the organization from other women - from white women. And so this was something we really wanted to explore, even though it's a sensitive topic, as you said.

MARTIN: Denise, is this an issue that other African-American corporate women discuss when they're together?

Ms. BECKLES: I have heard the same concern and a hesitancy, almost, from the African-American women to step out and reach across the line, so to speak. So this is a huge opportunity for some bridge building.

MARTIN: Carol, I have to talk to you, because Working Mother Media isn't just for mothers per se. I mean, you talk about executive women and the issues confronting executive women…

Ms. EVANS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …regardless of their parenting status.

Ms. EVANS: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you hold seminars around the country that address issues of concern to women executives. Does this issue come up, the question of whether women across color lines are supporting each other?

Ms. EVANS: Yes, it - kind of a lot, especially in our multicultural women's initiative. And what we find is that the crucial topic is around the word trust. And what we have seen in all of these seminars that we give across the country - and we've conducted, I think, 40 town halls and five major conferences - but what we see is that white women are not aware that they're not trusted by women of color.

And for women of color, they assume that white women know this, that they're not trusted. But white women are kind of behind a shield, because they are so busy and they have thought so much about the barriers to them that they perceive very acutely when it comes to competing with men, and they just haven't made that leap to realize that they are not trusted by women of color and that they haven't earned that trust.

When they find out that they need to earn that trust, boy, it's a big revelation. It's a very painful revelation for them, first of all, but they really want to make that leap because they assume they're part of the good guys.

MARTIN: Well, why do they need to, would be my question.

Ms. EVANS: Good question. Well, I mean, first of all, there is a - still, I think, a very important issue of sisterhood. And, you know, women are trying to band together to make a huge leap forward as a gender, because we are still way, way behind. We're behind in pay. We're behind in promotion. We're behind in pension. Everything falls into place from there. So women still need to be concerned about how women are doing.

And then, when we realize that, in some ways, women of color feel about white women the way white women feel about men - in other words, that we're not that helpful. That's where this leads to the issue of we've really want to change that perception. We don't want to be on the wrong side of that equation. So it's also a very good thing…

Ms. GOOD: This is why - I think it's true. I think what a lot of women just aren't aware of that this is a pretty serious issue, I think.

MARTIN: Cynthia, go ahead. Expand on which - that point if you would.

Ms. GOOD: Well, I mean, and some, you know - to add onto what Carol was saying, I mean, some of the people we interviewed for this article went so far as to say that black women are treated by white women almost as - and we have a quote. This doesn't come from me. It's hired help, and that's the way they're viewed. And, you know, they talk about the glass ceiling being the (unintelligible). But for African-American women, it's often at the clerical level. Women are leaving these positions, they're opening companies six times the rate as everybody else. And I think the thing that really scares me is this is not the blatant racism that we saw in years past. This is something that is more insidious. It's something that's unspoken. It's something that may not even be conscious, which to me is almost more dangerous.

MARTIN: And, well, I hope to say, Cindy, you're not just - you don't just have a quote in this in your article. You have an on-the-record quote. By a…

Ms. GOOD: Yeah, a number of them, actually. You're right. Yes.

MARTIN: …yes, by a woman who works for Home Depot, the Home Depot, a major company who says that white women don't have parity with white men, but they're a rung above women of color on the ladder. White men in corporate America look at white women and see their wives, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, nieces, granddaughters. In contrast, she says, many of the same men still see women of color as clerks, and some white women secretly view black women as the hired help.

Ms. GOOD: Right. And is that your sense of it, too, Denise? Do you see that, too?

Ms. EVANS: Well, what I want to offer is that I believe that on both sides, there's things that we don't know we don't know.

Ms. GOOD: Right.

Ms. BECKLES: And I think this is a great opportunity to continue to dialogue around this topic, because it is very real. In my work with developing diversity competencies and diversity strategy and helping companies work towards filling that pipeline and retaining people of color, they awareness piece is critical. Because unless they have an understanding of what the pockets of issues are, they will not be addressed.

MARTIN: Well, Denise, it sounds like - just to further your point, you're saying that African-American women have a responsibility, too. What are some of the things…

Ms. GOOD: Yeah.

MARTIN: …that they could be doing to reach across?

Ms. BECKLES: Oh, absolutely. I think it's important for us to connect with our senior leadership, our women, our white women in our organizations - take that step, take that initiative. And I'm not saying that there's women of color who don't. But for me, with the aspirations that I have, it's imperative that I make as many connections as I can, not just with white women, but many types of mentors to be able to develop that strategy to get where it is I want to go. Unless that's communicated, our senior leaders or our leaders really don't know how to help us. And that information is critical. Yeah.

MARTIN: But Carol, I have this question. Why women, per se - I mean, we've pointed out that there are only 13 female CEOs, 11 are white, two are Asian-American. You know what that means? Yes.

Ms. BECKLES: Well, that means that the vast majority are men.

MARTIN: Yes.

Ms. BECKLES: So the question now is why are we asking this question about why women aren't being more supportive of women in the workplace, as opposed to the overwhelming majority of corporate officers who are men? I mean, why shouldn't men have to do more mentoring?

Ms. EVANS: They really need to be. And it's not just that we're talking about women, but women may be the easiest path to helping each other get ahead. Oh, yeah, because look at the low level of trust that we have of men. Men still are perceived as much of a barrier to advancement for women in general, and we just don't want white women to be aligned with men on that. Of course, many, many men are in the position of being able to help, being able to mentor and being very, very willing.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we're talking about an article on this month's Pink magazine about whether white female professionals are doing their part to help African-American colleagues climb the corporate ladder.

Cynthia, I'd ask the same question, though. Is it - the response - you know, why is, why should white women feel a responsibility to be helpful to African-American women?

Ms. GOOD: White male leaders certainly, they hold the bulk of leadership positions. At the end of the day, though, one of the things we like to do at Pink is not just point the finger at everybody else, but to look in the mirror and say, what can we do? What can we do to be an advocate for each other, and what can we do to be an advocate for ourselves? And we've asked Denise to sit down and write part of this piece as a sidebar she did on what responsibility do white women have to support each other, and what responsibility do black women have to promote themselves?

And look, if one of you wins, I can be more successful because of that. And we really operate from a perspective of abundance. The more success there is, and more success there will be for all of us. And, you know, it would be nice to see more women of color, specifically more black women, rise up through the ranks. Because there was a huge inequity there that I don't think has done adequately addressed to date.

MARTIN: Denise, you did write this sidebar, and I want to hear more about it…

Ms. BECKLES: Yes.

MARTIN: …but I do want to hear about a mentoring relationship that you have had, and I wanted to ask, you know, how did it start, and how's it going?

Ms. BECKLES: Well, it started when the person came into the company, and one of the major projects, reorganization projects that this person was responsible for, I was also responsible for. So I got a chance to work with very closely with the individual in a team setting. And what happened was we were so successful with the teamwork, that after I left that particular position, I stayed in touch with this individual, shared my aspirations with her. We developed a very close relationship.

And I want to say is that the relationship is key, and it takes time. So we spent time together. She made a committed effort. She followed through. When there were opportunities that came down the line, she was at the table. She had my interests at the table. And she stayed in touch with me and gave me some guidance on some things I needed to do, some classes that I could take. So the mentoring relationship is one that's very important and has made all the difference in my career.

MARTIN: Okay, but Denise, I still need to go back to my first question, which is why should they do this? Why should a company do this?

Ms. BECKLES: Because it's a business imperative. We look at the business needs first. And with the changing demographics, the talent pool that is shrinking, it's important that every employee that steps into an organization is able to bring their whole self to work and contribute 100 percent.

MARTIN: Okay. It's really the same argument…

Ms. BECKLES: Because that is what's needed for an organization to be successful.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. EVANS: It's really the same argument about why we needed to bring women into the workforce in this country. We have been strong. This country has been so strong because of the contribution of women over the last 30 years. And, you know, if women couldn't have babies and stay in their jobs, we would have lost almost all of that contribution. Same thing here, the talent pool is there.

Ms. GOOD: I mean, in just looking at the bottom line, I mean, you all are familiar with the catalyst data that Fortune 500 companies with more women in top positions have a higher - 34 percent higher total return to shareholders. But I've talked with CEOs of major corporations who have told me point blank that they have lost major pieces of business because they did not have the customer reflected at the table. So if you're trying to do business with a client and you don't have diversity, you're going to lose the business. So at the end of the day, you know, if you want to talk to the organization, it comes down to the bottom line.

MARTIN: Cynthia, you commissioned this piece, or at least got this piece from Denise about what we can do or what people should be doing, and you have five actions white women can take and five actions women of color can take. So if I could just go around and ask each of you to offer one or two thoughts about what you get the people should be doing.

Ms. BECKLES: Okay.

MARTIN: Cynthia, why don't you start?

Ms. BECKLES: Some of the specifics, opportunity - white women have to go out of your way to be a mentor for a woman of color, attending an event outside of your specific community in an ethnic neighborhood with a woman of color, get to know her needs, get to know her struggles, and always to be the voice for those who are not in the room, to challenge the status quo. We're now in a position we can begin to do that.

MARTIN: Denise? What are one or two things that women can do to reach across the divide?

Ms. BECKLES: I think the courageous thing that women can do is to make sure that they're strengthening their diversity, leadership competencies. That means, you know, what is it that I need to do to become an authentic, leader so that I can mentor and truly develop people of color, and all people?

MARTIN: Carol, you've offered us a couple of ideas. Any other thoughts about what it is that people should do?

Ms. EVANS: Sure. We have a saying at Working Mothers, says what color is your rolodex? Look at your team and say, is it diverse in the way that you'd like it to be? If not, reach outside of your own community and then add that in as an important element to your own team.

MARTIN: Carol Evans is the CEO and president of Working Mother Media. She joined us from our New York bureau. We were also joined by Denise Beckles, diversity educator at one of the country's largest Fortune 500 companies. She joined us from member station WBGO. And Cynthia Good is the CEO and co-owner of Pink, and she joined us by phone from Atlanta.

Ladies, thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BECKLES: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. GOOD: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. EVANS: Thank you so much.

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