Walgreens CEO’s exit has left America Inc weak on diversity

Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc announced Friday that its chief executive, Rosalind Brewer, had resigned the day before. Brewer was the only African-American female CEO to run an S&P 500 company. With so few African-American women ever having gotten to the top of big US companies—other notables include former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and Mary Winston as interim chief of Bed Bath & Beyond—Brewer’s departure deserves attention. After Burns left Xerox, the Fortune 500 went five years without another African-American female CEO.

The fact that there are so few at the helm of major companies itself creates a problem: One of the challenges such corporate leaders must overcome is isolation. In US C-suites, many African-American women must confront the reality of being “the only.” Even if others have held senior roles before them, there are so few that it’s unusual to have more than one on a board or executive team at a time. That can leave each one feeling like she’s reinventing the wheel. Whereas Caucasian women have long talked of a ‘glass ceiling,’ the term many African-American women use is a concrete wall. You can’t even see across it. As Ella Bell Smith and Stella Nkomo write in their book Our Separate Ways, they “face special hurdles in the journey to the top and … when they get there, may find corporate America a lonely, hollow, haunted place.”

That’s among the reasons that African-American women are so over-represented among entrepreneurs: A 2021 study found that 17% of them were trying to start their own business, compared to only 10% of Caucasian women and 15% of Caucasian men. African-American women account for about 14% of the US female population and 42% of its new, women-owned businesses. Sidelining that hustle is corporate America’s loss.

When researchers led by Joan C. Williams, Katherine W. Phillips and Erika V. Hall surveyed scientists working in established companies, African-America women mentioned isolation more than any other group. “You don’t know who you can trust,” said one. “This has been a very lonely life.” Some mentioned being excluded by colleagues, while others mentioned keeping their personal lives private, even when personal discussions at work were common. They feared —with good reason—that sharing personal information could undermine their authority or even be used against them. What’s also isolating: the feeling that you can’t ever make a single mistake. That’s what African-American female architects told researchers in a different study of architects, co-authored by Williams with Rachel Korn and Rachel Maas. All women have to continually demonstrate their fitness for the job, but it’s even more true for minority women. Williams has found that African-American women in an array of professional fields are markedly more likely than Caucasian, Asian or Hispanic women to say they have to provide unusual amounts of evidence of their competence. Three-quarters of African-American women in science, math and engineering careers said they had experienced this form of “prove it again” bias. Women of colour are also more likely to be mistaken for cleaning staff.

As a result, they are less likely to get the kinds of high-profile assignments that lead to upper management. We know from academic research that women and minorities tend to be over-assigned grunt work and under-assigned glory work; this is especially true for minority women. A relative lack of high-profile assignments holds these employees back from promotion. For example, in a third study, this time of technology firms, Williams, with Rachel Korn and Asma Ghani, found that women of colour were significantly more likely to get stuck doing work that was beneath their level of expertise or entirely outside of their job description. Men were allowed to do the technical jobs they were hired for; African-American women were asked to become unpaid diversity, equity and inclusion consultants. That’s not the path to becoming CEO.

These biases play out at every level, winnowing the pool of women available for executive roles. In a 2021 study by Yale’s Kelly Shue, looking at a large retail chain, the research team found that even when women’s performance reviews showed higher ratings than men, they were rated lower on their ‘potential’ and promoted at a lower rate. The contrast between performance and potential got even starker at the higher levels of the organization. “Women get progressively lower potential scores relative to their actual future performance as we rise up the corporate ladder,” Shue said, “This is going to contribute to a stronger and stronger glass ceiling the higher up we go.” ©bloomberg

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Updated: 04 Sep 2023, 10:39 PM IST

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