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Supporting women and minorities in leadership

Updated: Sep 16

By Terri E. Givens


Women have made great strides in gaining access to leadership since the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1973 made it illegal to discriminate based on pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions, but is important to understand the broader challenges women, and in particular, African-American women still face in attaining leadership positions in the U.S. It would be nice to believe that people are selected for leadership positions based on their talent and ability. However, research on diversity in leadership shows that Black men and women are still finding it difficult to get into leadership positions.

In my book, Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides, I focus on the fact that we not only need empathy, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but to take action on what we learn from having empathy. Radical empathy requires taking action and creating change. Leadership positions provide the perfect opportunity for radical empathy. The recent focus on the Movement for Black Lives creates an opportunity and a challenge for leaders. How can we dismantle the structural racism that keeps talented Black candidates from getting into leadership positions?

The numbers show that the biggest challenge for Black leaders is a lack access, both to the C-suite and to boardrooms. As reported in an article in 2018 by David Kiger, the numbers of Black CEOs in the Fortune 500 have not been growing:

  • The number of Black CEOs is down one from 2017, after Kenneth Chenault retired earlier this year from his longtime post as CEO of American Express.

  • Three is the lowest number of Black CEOs since 2002.

  • Since 1999, a total of 16 Black CEOs have led Fortune 500 companies.

  • Ursula Burns was the first and only Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She retired from Xerox in 2016. [1]

Why should we focus on these numbers? They are important, because of our desire to be a country that values equality and rewards ability. When African American women are underrepresented in senior leadership roles despite strong academic credentials and work experience, their struggles are evidence of the broader problem of workplace equality [2]

A study described in the Harvard Business Review examined the experiences of Black women who graduated from Harvard Business School from 1977 to 2015. It included analysis of 67 women who reached executive or other high leadership roles. Their orientation to the world was similar to my own, these women were also told by their parents and mentors that they had to be smarter or run faster or jump higher or be better than anybody else around them to get into the game. [3] The women studied who had become successful leaders developed three skills that were key to their resilience: emotional intelligence, authenticity, and agility.

With a dearth of Black leaders, it is up to all CEOs and leaders to accept responsibility for supporting and promoting a diverse work force. This can be done through inclusive leadership.

Inclusive leadership is just as important as having women and minorities in leadership positions. Inclusive leadership includes the following traits or behaviors:

Visible commitment: They articulate authentic commitment to diversity, challenge the status quo, hold others accountable and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority.

Humility: They are modest about capabilities, admit mistakes, and create the space for others to contribute.

Awareness of bias: They show awareness of personal blind spots as well as flaws in the system and work hard to ensure meritocracy.

Curiosity about others: They demonstrate an open mindset and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment, and seek with empathy to understand those around them.

Cultural intelligence: They are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required.

Effective collaboration: They empower others, pay attention to diversity of thinking and psychological safety, and focus on team cohesion. [4]

Empathy is another particularly important component, because it is often difficult for women and people of color to find mentors and supporters who come from similar backgrounds. Those leaders who want to support women and minorities need to have empathy so that they can see things from the perspective of someone who may have had quite different life experiences and a different path to leadership.

Being in a leadership position doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is exercising leadership. True leadership is a process and even for those who may have innate leadership skills, it must be practiced every day to be effective. It is important for leaders to be able to put the needs of others ahead of their own and to have the vision to see things that others may not be able to see. That vision enables a leader to take risks and to try new things. Empathy is a critical component of leadership that is often overlooked, and I believe that radical empathy is a form of leadership.

Ways to help your workplace become more inclusive and to develop inclusive leaders include:

  • Start with recruitment practices – does your organization recruit and support employees from diverse backgrounds? If not, encourage your company leadership to develop those programs, being sure to follow best practices: - Connect with networks that go outside of the networks of current employees, like HBCU alumni, to ensure a wide pool of talent - In general, look beyond the Ivy league and elite colleges when developing a pool of talent - Ensure that recruiters and interviewers are well-versed in ways to avoid unconscious bias - Ensure that the job description and duties are relevant and not inflated to keep women or minorities out. - Provide resources that will allow a smooth transition into a position.

  • Make sure company leaders understand that inclusion is about ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard, opinions are considered and value to the team is evident.

  • Provide training for managers and provide coaching and mentoring so that they can properly support their employees. Develop clear goals for inclusivity and make sure they are accountable for positive outcomes.

  • Value differences and create an environment where people can feel comfortable bringing their “full selves” to work and have safe places to share their concerns.

  • Observing daily interactions can be an important way to determine if your company is developing an inclusive culture.

Notes: [1] Kiger, D. (2018) “Minorities Face Numerous Challenges On the Path to the C-suite”, Business 2 Community, [online], 19 July, Available from: https://www.business2community.com/leadership/minorities-face-numerous-challenges-on-the-path-to-the-c-suite-02092829 [Accessed 4 September 2020]. [2] Roberts, LM., Mayo, A., Ely, R., and Thomas, D. (2018) “Beating the Odds” Harvard Business Review, [online], March-April, Available from: https://hbr.org/2018/03/beating-the-odds [Accessed 4 September 2020]. [3] Roberts, LM., Mayo, A., Ely, R., and Thomas, D. (2018) “Beating the Odds” Harvard Business Review, [online], March-April, Available from: https://hbr.org/2018/03/beating-the-odds [Accessed 4 September 2020]. [4] Bourke, J. and Espedido, A. (2019) “Why Inclusive Leaders Are Good for Organizations, and How to Become One” Harvard Business Review, [online], 29 March, Available from: https://hbr.org/2019/03/why-inclusive-leaders-are-good-for-organizations-and-how-to-become-one [Accessed 4 September 2020].


Forthcoming Book:

Pre-order here Terri's forthcoming book, "Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides."


Structural racism has impacted the lives of African Americans in the United States since before the country’s founding. Although the country has made some progress towards a more equal society, political developments in the 21st century have shown that deep divides remain. The persistence of inequality is an indicator of the stubborn resilience of the institutions that maintain white supremacy. To bridge our divides, renowned political scientist Terri Givens calls for ‘radical empathy’ - moving beyond an understanding of others’ lives and pain to understand the origins of our biases, including internalized oppression. Deftly weaving together her own experiences with the political, she offers practical steps to call out racism and bring about radical social change.

About the Author:

Terri E. Givens is a political scientist, consultant, and the CEO of The Center for Higher Education Leadership. She is the author of numerous books and articles on immigration policy, antidiscrimination policy, and higher education leadership. Her forthcoming book, Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides is available for pre-order and will be published in February 2021.


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