Black employees at the 50 most valuable corporations in the United States comprise only 8 percent of the top executive positions at these companies, according to a new Washington Post report. While “glass ceiling” discrimination often refers to the lack of women in corporate executive positions, numerous studies have found that promotion discrimination against Black employees is even more entrenched, hence the term “concrete ceiling” when referring to the dearth of Black—particularly Black female— employees in the C-suite.
The Washington Post’s investigation found that, a year-and-a-half after many of these Top 50 corporations pledged to increase diversity and address racial inequality in their workforce, the measurable gains made on these fronts are “strikingly small.” This includes:
- “At least eight companies — Walmart, Nvidia, Cisco, Pfizer, T-Mobile, Costco, Honeywell and Qualcomm — list no Black executives among their leadership team as of December ”
- Companies have turned to diversity and inclusion officers to help create diverse work environments and encourage participation of underrepresented groups among executive leadership. Yet many of these diversity officers lack the resources and access to power to make meaningful progress because, for example, they are not included in top leadership and instead report to the human resources department.
What Is “Glass Ceiling” Discrimination?
Glass ceiling discrimination generally refers to an unfair, artificial barrier that prevents certain employees (women; people of color; LGBTQ+) from fairly competing for upper management jobs in companies. In practice, it keeps qualified employees from reaching their full potential and, depending on applicable law, illegally blocks them from occupying the best-paid and most powerful positions. The glass ceiling can be caused by, among other things:
- entrenched attitudes/stereotypes about what type(s) of people should get the most senior jobs at the company;
- subjective/hard to define qualifications for promotions that introduce conscious or unconscious biases into decision-making; and/or
- a lack of networking and mentoring opportunities for women, people of color, and LGTBQ+ individuals.
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as other federal and state laws, make it illegal for an employer to use promotion practices that create a glass ceiling.
Steps To Crack The Glass Ceiling At Top Corporations
So what can be done to address this persistent problem of excluding Black employees from C-suite executive roles? One suggestion, which this column has suggested for years, is to tie executives’ bonuses to diversity initiatives. That is, companies can link executive bonuses to how well they advance and champion the company’s diversity and anti-discrimination initiatives. And doing so makes sense because if an objective is important, then the company should ensure (1) its employees know about it and (2) that their performance in meeting this goal will be measured along with the company’s other core values and targets.
The Washington Post’s article also suggested this approach and quoted Wendy Lewis, McDonald’s former chief global diversity officer, as saying, “[u]ntil you really start to hit value points like money and promotions, you just don’t move the needle[.]” And she said that too often, “diversity goals become ‘loose and subjective’ parts of performance reviews, treated like something extra instead of prioritized like other business objectives. Diversity work should have transparent expectations, measurements and financial rewards if it’s to be seriously valued[.]”
Notably, McDonalds announced it would tie 15% of executive bonuses to “increasing representation within leadership for women and historically underrepresented groups and creating a strong culture of inclusion,” as reported by the Washington Post. Similarly, a few years back during the harassment scandal at Uber an investigation report by former Attorney General Eric Holder recommended using bonuses “to reward conduct that is consistent with the cultural environment that [companies] hope to create.”
Other ideas to crack glass ceiling discrimination within corporate executive ranks include:
- Adopt a version of the NFL’s “Rooney Rule” in which the pool of candidates for executive positions includes Black and other underrepresented employees; and
- Establish a system to receive and follow up on complaints of discrimination, which includes specific information about the subjects of the complaint and a protocol for escalating and investigating complaints; and
- Empower and elevate chief diversity and inclusion officers so that they report to the CEO or another very senior executive and have a “seat at the table” when decisions are made.
The Washington Post’s article concludes by noting that some companies have experienced backlash related to their efforts to increase diversity and address racism. One employee met with Chevron’s former chief diversity and inclusion officer, Lee Jourdan, and quoted Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” to him while saying that “people should be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Jourdan responded, “We do not have an environment that allows people to be judge by the content of their character.”