Kamala Harris may finally change how corporate America sees and treats Black women

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Jessica Guynn and Charisse Jones, USA TODAY
Published 10:18 a.m. ET Nov. 11, 2020 | Updated 12:50 p.m. ET Nov. 11, 2020

Harris is also the first Black and South Asian American to be elected vice president.

USA TODAY

In a suffragette white suit and pearls before a cheering and honking crowd in Wilmington, Delaware, Kamala Harris sent a poignant message to Black and brown women and girls.

“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, said in Saturday’s victory speech. “Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

The senator from California is the first woman, first Black person and first person of Asian descent to be elected to the nation’s second-highest office in 244 years, and some hope her ascension will be felt beyond the public sector.

“As a Black woman myself, I am counting on it, that we will take this watershed moment and use it as an opportunity to break down barriers for women of color,” said Dnika Travis, vice president of research at Catalyst.

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Others are more skeptical.

“I wish I could say that I thought Kamala Harris’s ascension to the vice presidency would portend a change for Black and brown women in corporate America, but there’s nothing really to suggest that will be the case,” said Adia Harvey Wingfield, sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

“I do not mean to downplay Kamala Harris’s achievement. It is a momentous one that has important and critical symbolic and representational significance,” said Wingfield, whose research focuses on racial and gender inequality in professional occupations. “But there’s no reason to believe that her singular accomplishment is going to mean a wholesale shift in corporate policy, culture and norms. And that’s what it would take to see a sea change for Black and brown women in those settings.”

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware on Tuesday. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster, AP)

Eight years of President Barack Obama did little to boost representation of Black men on the nation’s corporate campuses and in its office towers, says University of Iowa assistant professor Victor Ray.

This year, after George Floyd, a Black man, died under the knee of a white policeman in Minneapolis, major corporations issued statements of support and pledges to address the racial chasm in their organizations. The outpouring was unprecedented after decades of corporate silence on racism and police killings in the United States, yet corporations still have little to show for it. 

“The numbers in corporate America at the top of the hierarchy haven’t changed that much up or down. You see these little blips when there are things like the protests around George Floyd, and then things tend to return to a kind of equilibrium,” Ray said.

Women hit the ‘Black ceiling’

For decades at the nexus of money and power in corporate America, Black women have been underestimated and overlooked. Ellen McGirt, senior editor and author of Fortune magazine’s Race Ahead column, calls these entrenched patterns of discrimination and exclusion that obstruct Black women’s careers the “Black ceiling.” 

Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox, was the first and only Black woman to run a Fortune 500 company. Today, none of the four Black CEOs running Fortune 500 companies is a woman. 

Of the 279 most powerful executives listed in the regulatory filings of the nation’s 50 largest companies, only three, or 1%, are Black women, and that includes one executive who recently retired, according to a USA TODAY analysis.

Black women, who make up 7.4% of the U.S. population, are significantly underrepresented throughout corporate America’s leadership ranks, occupying 1.6% of vice president roles and 1.4% of C-suite positions, LeanIn.org reports in “The State of Black Women in Corporate America.”

Kamala Harris may finally change how corporate America sees and treats Black women

A display of books about President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore (Photo: Mark Makela, Getty Images)

Even as they make big strides in the workplace, too few are invited to join insular corporate networks. They can count on fewer senior executives as mentors. They are more rarely considered for coveted promotions to top operational roles. And they are typically paid far less, earning 63 cents for every dollar paid to their white male peers when working full-time.

Over the course of their careers, they also pay an “emotional tax,” from the strain and hypervigilance caused by overlapping discrimination based on race and gender, racial stereotypes and cultural slights. According to 2018 research from Catalyst’s Travis, 61% of Black women reported being “highly on guard.” 

What’s more, when Black women strike out on their own, they are among the least likely to get checks cut by venture capitalists. So few raise venture money that the percentage is, statistically speaking, nearly zero.

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Vice President-elect Kamala Harris delivers remarks. Jim Watson, AFP via Getty ImagesFullscreen

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What undermines Black women 

“Black women face a particular set of stereotypes and a particular double-edged sword where they are more often caricatured as angry and hostile when they are demonstrating assertiveness and confidence,” said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “That set of race and gendered stereotypes undermines Black women’s leadership in a lot of important ways.”

For months, President Donald Trump mocked Harris’s first name, which means “lotus” in Sanskrit, mispronouncing it as “Ka-MAH-La.” At a recent campaign rally, he warned that Harris is a “female” socialist. He’s also described her as a “monster.” 

“I think part of the really poisonous national politics we have seen in recent years is white men in particular who are very threatened as they are not the only ones who hold the decision-making power in the country anymore,” Martin said. “And I think that’s one reason why we have seen such really overtly racist and misogynistic talk and action in public that I think even a few years ago, people would have felt like they had to be a little less explicit about.”

Martin hopes Harris will normalize the leadership of Black women and chip away at stereotypes. 

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