News and Announcements

Catalyst Report Outlines Unique Challenges Faced by African-American Women in Business

?Concrete Ceiling? Difficult to Shatter; Diversity Programs Need Strengthening

Catalyst, the leading research and advisory organization working to advance women in business, today released a report focused exclusively on the unique challenges faced by African-American women in business. Advancing African-American Women in the Workplace: What Managers Need to Know reveals that many African-American women in corporate America continue to face a “concrete ceiling” as they work toward career advancement.

African-American women represent an important and growing source of talent, yet they currently represent only 1.1 percent of corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies, a mere 106 African-American women out of a group of 10,092 corporate officers.

Catalyst Senior Director of Research Katherine Giscombe remarked on the study’s genesis, “Over the past several years, Catalyst has worked to raise corporate awareness of the issues facing women-of-color managers. As the level of awareness increased, so did the requests for information about women in specific racial and ethnic groups.”

Catalyst President Ilene H. Lang commented on the release, “This report, like our reports on Asian-American and Latina women issued in 2003, provides the sobering facts right alongside specific tools and tips.” She underscored, “Smart companies will use this information to improve their diversity programs and tap the talent of this important segment of the workforce.” 

Barriers facing African-American women in business include negative, race-based stereotypes; more frequent questioning of their credibility and authority; and a lack of institutional support. Experiencing a “double outsider” status—unlike white women or African-American men, who share gender or race in common with most colleagues or managers—African-American women report exclusion from informal networks, and conflicted relationships with white women, among the challenges they face. The historical legacy of slavery, legally enforced racial segregation, and discrimination based on skin color make race a particularly difficult topic for discussion in the workplace. Many women in the study report making discussions of race off-limits.

While approximately 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies have formally stated diversity programs, only 33 percent of the African-American women surveyed feel that these programs effectively create supportive environments. Thirty-six percent feel these programs foster respect for their cultural background. Thirty-seven percent of African-American women see their opportunities for advancement to senior management positions in their companies declining over time, in contrast to Latinas and Asian women who are more likely to see opportunities slightly increasing. 

Keys to success cited by African-American women in business include exceeding performance expectations, communicating effectively, connecting with mentors, building positive relationships with managers and colleagues, and using their cultural backgrounds to enhance job performance. John J. Mack, CEO of Credit Suisse First Boston LLC, the sponsor of this study, commented on the report’s significance. "Advancing African-American Women in the Workplace: What Managers Need to Know" is critical to our understanding of the business experiences of African-American women on Wall Street. Catalyst’s contribution to the field of research on these topics since 1997 has been an essential tool for our businesses. Companies and managers seeking to recruit, retain, and advance this important pool of talent—and they all should be—will find this report important for success.”

For this study, Catalyst surveyed 963 African-American women in Fortune 1000 companies and held 23 focus groups with entry- and mid-level African-American women. These respondents participated in Catalyst’s larger 1999 study, Women of Color in Corporate Management: Opportunities and Barriers. Survey data also come from a follow-up study, done in 2001, with 369 African-American women participants from the earlier study. For more information on this and other Catalyst reports, visit

ABOUT CATALYST Catalyst is the leading research and advisory organization working to advance women in business, with offices in New York, San Jose, and Toronto. As an independent, nonprofit membership organization, Catalyst uses a solutions-oriented approach that has earned the confidence of business leaders around the world. Catalyst conducts research on all aspects of women’s career advancement and provides strategic and web-based consulting services on a global basis to help companies and firms advance women and build inclusive work environments. In addition, we honor exemplary business initiatives that promote women’s leadership with our annual Catalyst Award. Catalyst is consistently ranked No. 1 among U.S. nonprofits focused on women’s issues by The American Institute of Philanthropy.