One common explanation for the gender gap in leadership is the idea that women lack the same professional ambition that men have.
To be sure, this controversial theory has its detractors. Now, new research suggests this issue is even more complex than it might seem.
According to a report from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a New York City-based think tank headed by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, black women are significantly more ambitious than white women in the workplace.
Just 8% of white women aspire to a powerful position with a prestigious title. On the other hand, 22% of black women aspire to a powerful role, which is a similar percentage as men.
The findings are “shocking,” Tai Green, CTI senior vice president and one of the report’s co-authors, tells Business Insider. “They counter what we’ve been hearing about women’s ambivalence to power.”
The report, based on surveys of 356 black women, 788 white women, and 1,578 men holding white-collar jobs, also found that black and white women have very different ideas of what holding a top position will really be like.
For one, black women are generally better able to predict the kinds of privileges that a powerful job will afford them — including the ability to flourish, to earn more money, and to help empower others. Moreover, once they acquire a top position, black women are much more confident than white women that they will succeed in it (43% vs 30%).
One way to explain black women’s relative self-assurance is the fact that they are more likely than white women to hold leadership positions outside the workplace. The report notes that many black women are leaders in their households, churches, schools, and communities. Black women are also more likely to be the primary breadwinners in their families, which could help explain why they aim for high-paying positions.
And yet a look at the numbers reveals that black women are barely represented in corporate leadership. Among S&P 500 CEOs,
there are 23 women and just one of them is black: Ursula Burns of Xerox.
Compared to white women, black women are more likely to report feeling stalled in their careers (44% vs 30%) and to feel their talents aren’t recognised by their superiors (26% vs 17%).
The study authors point to a number of potential barriers keeping even the most motivated black women from professional progress, namely unconscious bias and a marked lack of sponsors.
Black women are at an immediate disadvantage in the workplace, Green says. Often, they’re not perceived as leadership material because they don’t look, act, or sound like white men, who make up the bulk of today’s business leaders. “A large majority of black women feel they have to conform and compromise their authenticity to make it to the top,” she says — even if they have the technical chops.
Black women also struggle with a dearth of sponsors, meaning senior leaders who will advocate on their behalf, especially when it comes to earning raises and promotions. That’s partially a result of the fact that women of colour are hesitant to reach out and sponsor others who look like them. “The mindset is that there’s a significant risk,” Green says. If their sponsee fails, “they will be scrutinised twice as hard.”
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this research is that treating women as though they’re all the same is ineffective. If companies want to help women achieve success, they must take into account their individual experiences and backgrounds, and the unique barriers to their professional development.