Women of Color: Past, Present, Future

February 16, 2012In today’s guest-post, Catalyst’s Katherine Giscombe reflects on what has changed—and what hasn’t—since she published her groundbreaking 1999 report on women of color in the workplace. Catalyst research reveals that minority women today make up only 3.4% of Fortune 100 board seats—a number that hasn’t significantly changed in years. Kathy surveys the barriers that may explain this gap, and invites readers to join her in charting solutions.


By Katherine Giscombe, Ph.D., Vice President, Diverse Women & Inclusion Research

As the lead researcher of the historic Women of Color in Corporate Management study from 15 years ago, I vividly remember the controversy accompanying this project. The report sparked dialogue on the sensitive subjects of race and gender in the workplace, focusing on stereotyping, biases, and unspoken privilege, and marshaled support for women of color in the workforce. After I spoke about findings to a predominantly white, corporate, audience, the moderator thanked me for introducing a “cold dose of reality” to that particular conference.

Back in the late 90’s, our work identified exclusionary work environments as the basis for barriers to advancement among women of color. Major hurdles included a lack of access to key relationships and high-visibility assignments. Women of color also cited negative stereotyping and difficulty fitting the corporate mold as factors that further impeded career progress, and found that diversity and inclusion programs alone were not effective remedies. In particular, very few believed that their managers were held accountable for diversity results and many felt that career development programs did not target women of color.

So what’s changed?

By comparing reports from this historic project with data collected in the late 2000’s, I’ve identified some improvements. Overall, women of color report that their organizations are more inclusive, that senior leaders are more committed to diversity and inclusion, and that women are more optimistic about their career advancement potential.

But we're not out of the woods yet.

Diversity practices still suffer from imperfect execution, and barriers continue to prevent diverse women from forming relationships at work. For example, managers are still not apt to share “insider” information, such as organizational politics, with diverse women. And while the overt discrimination executive women of color faced in the late 90’s has lessened, biases still exist today, though they are often subtler.

Complex challenges remain that must be overcome, especially in our expanding global landscape. For example, what happens when racially/ethnically diverse women from outside North America, who would not be considered minorities in their home countries, come to the United States to work? How might that experience affect their approaches to diversity when and if they return to their home countries? And what other dimensions of difference are global companies struggling with at present?

At the Catalyst Awards Conference on March 28, 2012, we'll be tackling these questions head-on. Please join me for a discussion on changes over time that you have experienced within your organization, and the remaining challenges for women of color.

Organizations still struggle to find appropriate approaches that create truly inclusive environments in the complex global space. I look forward to forging a path forward with you.


Katherine Giscombe, Ph.D., Vice President, Diverse Women & Inclusion Research, leads the Catalyst initiative to address the specific challenges faced by diverse women around the world. These include, among other groups, women of color and Canada's “visible minorities,” a legal term for specific underrepresented groups in Canadian corporations. Dr. Giscombe has extensive corporate work experience, having supported marketing and new product development at a variety of Fortune 500 companies for several years prior to joining Catalyst. She combines her doctoral training in Organizational Psychology from the University of Michigan and at the Institute for Social Research with her experience-based perspective to design and conduct unique, comprehensive, and solutions-based actionable research. Dr. Giscombe was selected by The Network Journal as one of its 25 Influential Black Women in Business 2005 award recipients. She was also the 2007 recipient of the Spelman College Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement's Legacy of Leadership Award, which recognizes individual leadership extending across gender and race.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.