I recently saw a cartoon depicting a white male executive and a black woman at the starting line of a race. Between the white man and the finish line were two small hurdles. The track in front of the black woman, who had a ball chained to her ankle, was littered with land mines, barbed wire, an alligator, a brick wall and weeds. The cartoon read, “Quit whining. It’s the same distance.”
I must admit, it made me smile. I had never seen white male privilege expressed so creatively. As a black female in corporate America for the 35 years, I faced and overcame countless obstacles, so there are very few things that surprise me. Unlike the obstacles in front of the black woman in the cartoon, most of the hurdles black women in corporate America must overcome are camouflaged — subtle, but real.
I’ve decided to give the cartoon another caption: “You Gotta Be." When Des'ree released this song in 1994, it quickly became my fight song. "You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser."
In retrospect, “You Gotta Be” has been a theme running through most of my life. I grew up in the 1960s, the first and only black girl in Euclid, Ohio, and the first black girl to graduate from Hawken, one of Cleveland's top private college prep schools.
In 1986, after being "first” in so many environments and armed with a freshly minted MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, I thought I was ready for the corporate world. It did not take me long to realize that world was not ready for me — and didn’t offer a level playing field.
The first and only
Once, early in my career, I watched my manager squirm while explaining why I was passed over for a promotion, despite exceeding my goals. He told me, “You smile and laugh too much." Now just how was I supposed to unpack that? Who was I going to talk to about that feedback? Who could I trust? Affinity groups were in their infancy and I did not know what it meant to have a mentor or a sponsor.
So, I leaned on the words of the person I most trusted, my dad: “You must be smarter, work harder and be better just to be recognized. But you have a right to sit at that table." It was his way of giving me permission to be bad, be bold and be wiser.
"You gotta be cool, you gotta be calm, you gotta stay together."
My next teaching moment came when it was time to recruit more talent like me. I was working in advertising account management with my own Don Draper and Roger Sterling, and once again, the only black person in the room. "Cecilia, we want to hire some really good black men, we just can't seem to find them. Do you know where we can find some?" Eager to help, I quickly went to the great Rolodex in my brain and with deft swiftness I replied, "If I knew where they were, do you think I would still be single?" To this day, I delight in remembering the look on their faces as they realized how ridiculous they sounded! I also continue to smile, laugh, and use humor to throw some sophisticated shade, expose the obstacles, keep calm while remaining true to myself.
"Listen as your day unfolds, challenge what the future holds."
Any black woman who has an executive role in corporate America could share stories that would leave you shaking your heads and wondering how and why we persevere. The answer is simple. We remain underrepresented. Black women accounted for only 1.2 percent of corporate officers and a miniscule 0.2 percent of CEOs in S&P 500 companies, according to a 2015 Catalyst report. This lack of progress has resulted in many women of color leaving the workforce to pursue other options to increase their economic and societal impact.
But corporations still need black women to succeed. As consumers our dollar is strong and we need to see products, services and images that truly reflect our market. It makes me proud to see my younger sisters like Bozoma Saint John, head of global consumer marketing at Apple Music, or Tiffany Warren, senior vice president and chief diversity officer at Omnicom, raising the bar and not conforming to anyone who tries to tamp down their creativity and spirit.
Keep challenging the status quo and knocking down those obstacles, one at a time. Remember a day in the not so distant past when we were not as free to be ourselves and embrace our blackness for fear of hindering our careers.
It is my belief that today's broad-based diversity programs do not adequately support the needs of black female executives. They must be supplemented with personal coaching for existing leadership and for female talent to create a culture where each person is respected as both a "teacher" and a "student." In the meantime, remember, you are not whining, you just gotta be bad!