Donna James felt triumphant. She had recently been promoted to senior vice president at Nationwide, an insurance and financial-services company in Columbus, Ohio, where she had started years ago as an accountant. But then a white male colleague burst her bubble. "You know, Donna," he said, "the jury is still out on whether you are where you are because you have talent or because you are female and black." James was stunned into silence, not because she had never beheld such a stereotype in the workplace but because no one had ever voiced it to her face. Her colleague explained he meant no harm. "He was trying to help me, and in his own way, he did," she says. "It was a blast of reality." James, now 48, answered in time--by rising to division president.
Minority women fill the executive suites as never before. An Asian-American woman, Andrea Jung, is CEO of Avon. Nina Tassler, a Latina, is president of CBS Entertainment. And Condoleezza Rice, who is African American, has a job just a few steps removed from President. Although their numbers at the top are still tiny--at 429 large companies surveyed by research and advisory group Catalyst in 2003, 1.6% of corporate officers were minority women--more women of an ethnic or racial minority hold senior-level jobs than ever before.
Yet even as their ranks grow, so does a murmur of frustration. Businesswomen of color speak quietly of persistent stereotypes (for example, having earned their jobs through affirmative action), of the struggle to conform to a white male culture, of feeling that their lives outside the office are invisible to bosses and colleagues. Their disgruntlement is so acute that some even talk of quitting. But for the most part, they keep their complaints from employers, who, although attuned to their minority and female constituents, remain largely in the dark about those who happen to be both. A new study written by noted academics Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Cornel West and Carolyn Buck Luce and sponsored by the nonprofit Center for Work-Life Policy suggests that companies are generally unaware of hidden biases connected to the traditional white corporate world. The study raises a broader, difficult question that corporations are only beginning to deal with: As minority employees rise in the workplace, should they learn to deal with the status quo, or do corporations need to change to accommodate and acknowledge their employees' different cultures, backgrounds and needs?
The study's results should be alarming to any company that wants to keep its minority women on board. Some 52% of minority women professionals at large companies do not trust their employers. Those women are more likely than other groups to be juggling children, extended families and community obligations, yet 56% believe that their employers don't recognize their responsibilities outside the workplace. Most alarming, 39% of minority women executives say the subtle prejudices in the workplace have alienated and disengaged them from their jobs; 1 in 5 has considered quitting. "Corporate America is in danger of letting this valuable talent slip through its fingers," says Hewlett.