Why Are There Still So Few Black CEOS?

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If corporate life is a pyramid, for Black Americans, it is one with the steepest of peaks.

Out of the chief executives running America’s top 500 companies, just 1%, or four, are Black. The numbers aren’t much better on the rungs of the ladder leading to that role. Among all U.S. companies with 100 or more employees, Black people hold just 3% of executive or senior-level roles, according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data.

Decades after the civil-rights movement led to laws banning workplace discrimination, progress for Black executives has hit a ceiling.

“Opportunity is not equally distributed,” says Ron Williams, the Black former CEO of Aetna who has served on 14 boards over his career and currently sits on the boards ofBoeing Co. and American Express Co. Too many promotions in companies are informally decided before jobs are ever posted, leaving Black people and more marginalized talent without the chance to compete, he says. “People don’t get the chance to work their way into a position where they are a reasonable candidate for a role,” he says.

CEOs, recruiters and senior executives say Black professionals face greater obstacles early in their career, are viewed more critically than their colleagues and frequently lack the relationships that are pivotal to advancement. Once in the C-suite, they are rarely given the profit-and-loss positions that serve as steppingstones to the top job, and are instead more typically placed into roles such as marketing or human resources. The lack of profit-and-loss experience also stymies women’s careers.

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If corporate life is a pyramid, for Black Americans, it is one with the steepest of peaks.

Out of the chief executives running America’s top 500 companies, just 1%, or four, are Black. The numbers aren’t much better on the rungs of the ladder leading to that role. Among all U.S. companies with 100 or more employees, Black people hold just 3% of executive or senior-level roles, according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data.

Decades after the civil-rights movement led to laws banning workplace discrimination, progress for Black executives has hit a ceiling.

“Opportunity is not equally distributed,” says Ron Williams, the Black former CEO of Aetna who has served on 14 boards over his career and currently sits on the boards ofBoeing Co. and American Express Co. Too many promotions in companies are informally decided before jobs are ever posted, leaving Black people and more marginalized talent without the chance to compete, he says. “People don’t get the chance to work their way into a position where they are a reasonable candidate for a role,” he says.

CEOs, recruiters and senior executives say Black professionals face greater obstacles early in their career, are viewed more critically than their colleagues and frequently lack the relationships that are pivotal to advancement. Once in the C-suite, they are rarely given the profit-and-loss positions that serve as steppingstones to the top job, and are instead more typically placed into roles such as marketing or human resources. The lack of profit-and-loss experience also stymies women’s careers.

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