Corporate America’s African-American women elite convened on Wall Street this summer to mull over the state of affairs of women of color in the upper ranks of the corporate workplace. In a discussion that ended the Executive Leadership Council’s (ELC) daylong Black Women’s Economic Summit, some 250 women, ranging from rising executives to senior Fortune 500 decision makers, for the first time collectively addressed obstacles they face professionally. The discussion, which was hosted by Merrill Lynch and the ELC, was framed by research from Catalyst, an advisory group that works to advance women in business. Chief among obstacles, says Catalyst’s 2004 report, “Advancing African Americans in the Workplace: What Managers Need to Know,” are negative race-based stereotypes, perceived lack of fit in the workplace, double outsider status based upon race and gender and exclusion from informal networks. “African-American women sometimes set boundaries and use guardedness in response to these work challenges. Alternatively, they can use their bicultural communication abilities to advantage in forging successful business relationships,” Katherine Giscombe, Catalyst’s senior research director, told the audience.
While all the presenters emphasized the importance of identifying and developing mentors and forging connections with influential networks in the workplace, each offered additional strategies for professional advancement and comfort. “It’s important to be able to take risks, articulate one’s business objective and acknowledge weakness in order to secure assistance,” said Stephanie Bell-Rose, president, The Goldman Sachs Foundation, and ELC member.
Amy Ellis Simon, managing director, Merrill Lynch, said, “I learned that it is a good thing to be able to socialize after work, to share a little bit about my personal life and to understand that of my co-workers.” For Kim Green, exe-cutive vice president, Willis Global Risk Solutions, and ELC member, taking risks is key. In her own case, she said, she put aside her training in marketing and plunged into insurance after college. After 20 years in the industry, she recently acquired global responsibility for Willis’s Consumer Products Practice Group.
Donna M. Wilson, senior vice president, Washington Mutual, and ELC member, urged the audience to “always be aware of your market worth, what your compensation should look like, and be willing to negotiate for it.” Wilson also is northeast president of Washington Mutual’s Community and External Affairs division.
One goal of the summit was to provide a networking opportunity for Black women who are no more than two reporting positions away from the CEO, Westina Matthews Shatteen, first vice president at Merrill Lynch, ELC board member and chair of the planning committee for the event, told The Network Journal: “There aren’t that many of them, so the opportunity to convene was extraordinary.” The summit also was designed to be informative and educational, she said. Participants moved from Goldman Sachs, to Moody’s Corp., to Merrill Lynch for discussions of economic, corporate governance and disclosure issues with business leaders who included the chief executives of The Blackstone Group, Goldman Sachs and Moody’s, and Christine Cummings, first vice president, Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Equally important, Matthews Shatteen says, is ELC’s desire to see business transacted among these high-level women. “In the old boys’ network, the way it has worked historically is that men help men on business deals. They take care of each other, not only for personal and professional development, but also for business transactions,” she says.