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Women of Color Report a "Concrete Ceiling" Barring Their Advancement in Corporate America

New Catalyst Study Shows Companies How to Deconstruct This Barrier

Women-of-color managers and professionals describe barriers to their advancement as a “concrete ceiling,” according to a major Catalyst study released today at a press breakfast. Women of Color in Corporate Management: Opportunities and Barriers finds that 47 percent of over 1,700 women-of-color survey respondents from 30 leading U.S. companies cite as barriers the difficulty of not having an influential mentor or sponsor; 40 percent cite the lack of informal networking with influential colleagues; 29 percent note the lack of company role models who are members of their racial/ethnic group; and 28 percent speak of the lack of high visibility assignments.

“The metaphor of a ‘concrete ceiling’ stands in sharp contrast to that of the ‘glass ceiling.’ Not only is the ‘concrete ceiling’ reported to be more difficult to penetrate, women of color say they cannot see through it to glimpse the corner office,” says Catalyst President Sheila Wellington. “This study is groundbreaking. It adds facts and hard data to the anecdotal information that has dominated the discussion of women of color in the workplace thus far.”

Women of Color is the culmination of a three-year, multi-phase study—the first parts were issued in 1997 and 1998—the largest and most comprehensive examination of African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic women managers in professional and managerial positions in the U.S. In addition to the survey responses, the research is based on 59 focus groups of 302 women, 82 individual interviews, and a review of diversity policies at 15 major companies. The study provides an in-depth look at women of color’s expectations, experiences, and perceptions of corporate culture and how they affect the women’s job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and intent to stay with the company. It also details Catalyst recommendations to companies for increasing the effectiveness of diversity for women of color and presents best practices among the corporate leaders.

The examination of corporate diversity programs reveals that diversity initiatives are not as effective as they could be or were intended to be for women of color. Seventy-five percent of the women of color surveyed are aware of training in their corporation to address race and gender issues, but only 22 percent say their managers receive adequate training in managing a diverse workforce. More than half (53 percent) of the women feel their companies’ diversity programs are ineffective in dealing with issues of subtle racism, 26 percent of the women say that career development is an important part of their companies’ diversity programs, and only 17 percent believe their managers are held accountable for advancing women of their racial/ethnic group. And in evaluating their work environments, many women, particularly African-American women, cite pervasive stereotypes.

The study reports that effective diversity programs foster retention. Survey responses indicate that diversity initiatives can increase women of color’s intent to stay with their current company.



As the number of women of color in the workforce rapidly increases and the competitive advantage from diverse perspectives is further recognized, American businesses will clearly need to review their diversity programs. “People assume that all women and people of color benefit from diversity initiatives,” said Katherine Giscombe, Ph.D., Catalyst’s project director for Women of Color, “But this simply is not true. In fact, many women in our study feel that they are overlooked in these programs. In order to make change for women of color, companies must zero in on these women and tailor programs to fit their particular needs. In this case, one size does not fit all.”

IBM Best Practice:In 1995, IBM’s Women’s Task Force suggested that the company focus more closely on women of color. An internal study, prompted by a subcommittee of executive women of color, identified the need to provide developmental programs as well as role models and mentoring opportunities for women of color. As a result, the number of women-of-color executives in the U.S. rose from 1.3% (17 of 1,261) in 1995 to 2.3% (42 of 1,802) in 1998.
Motorola Best Practice: Six years after broadening its succession planning practice to accelerate the advancement of women to the vice-president level, the company realized that few of the women who had advanced were women of color. Since 1995, Motorola makes sure that each mechanism supporting its succession planning process specifically targets women of color. Consequently, there are now eleven women-of-color vice presidents, out of a total of 54 women vice-presidents, up from only one in 1991.
Xerox Best Practice: Initiated in 1986, Xerox’s Black Women’s Leadership Council serves to address issues unique to African-American women and to advance their professional development. This program, in conjunction with the Balanced Work Force Strategy—in place to clarify the percentage representation of women and men by racial group within each grade level and organization—has added to the overall impact of women of color at Xerox. Among senior managers, representation of women of color rose from 3.5% in 1995 to 4.9% in 1999.

The press breakfast, attended by media and 250 business managers and professionals began with a presentation of findings by Catalyst President Sheila Wellington. Dr. Katherine Giscombe, director of research and advisory services and director of the Women of Color project then moderated a panel discussion. Panelists included Karen Fukuma, SVP and CFO of Lotus Development Corporation; Bobbi Gutman, VP and Director of Global Diversity, Motorola Inc.; and Linda Higueras, Vice President, Human Resources International, Pitney Bowes Inc.

Women of Color in Corporate Management: Opportunities and Barriers was sponsored by The Ford Foundation with matching funds from the following 18 companies: Avon Products, Inc.; BP Amoco p.l.c.; Deloitte & Touche; Dow Chemical Co.; E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company; Eastman Kodak Company; General Motors Corporation; Home Box Office; Hoechst Corporation; IBM Corporation; Levi Strauss; Mobil Corporation; Motorola, Inc.; Pitney Bowes Inc.; The Procter & Gamble Company; Sara Lee Corporation; Sears, Roebuck and Co.; and Xerox Corporation.

Catalyst is the nonprofit research and advisory organization that works with business to advance women. To obtain a copy of the in-depth, 20-page executive summary of this report, featuring numerous charts and graphs, please visit the Women of Color media kit located on Catalyst’s web site at or call Debbie Zarlin in the media department at 212-514-7600, ext. 305, for a copy of the full study.

© 1999 by Catalyst, 120 Wall Street, New York, NY 10005; 212-514-7600; fax 212-514-8470; Catalyst should be cited when any part of the material in this media kit is reprinted, quoted, or transmitted in any form.