Study takes unprecedented look at being Black in corporate America

Despite billions spent on diversity and inclusion, new research from the Center for Talent Innovation finds that Black professionals face prejudice, a lack of support from managers, and a cycle of exclusion that keeps them from the C-suite. (photo courtesy of Goldenkb/

Corporate America needs to awaken to the challenges faced by Black professionals, according to a new study published by nonprofit think tank the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI).

In the workplace, Black professionals are more likely to encounter prejudice and micro-aggressions than any other racial or ethnic group. They are less likely than their white counterparts to have access to senior leaders and to have support from their managers.

Yet few White professionals see what their Black colleagues are up against. Sixty-five percent of Black professionals say that Black employees have to work harder in order to advance, but only 16% of their White colleagues agree with that statement. Using a wealth of quantitative and qualitative data, featuring findings from a national survey, Being Black in Corporate America: An Intersectional Exploration delivers a multifaceted analysis, including solutions, for creating workplace cultures where Black employees can do their best work and succeed.

“This report sounds the alarm that, despite many good intentions, companies are falling short of creating equitable workplaces for Black employees,” said Pat Fili-Krushel, CEO of CTI. “We hope that business leaders will respond to these findings by making a serious assessment of their own workplaces and creating a comprehensive plan of action. We are especially concerned about the lack of awareness we discovered among White professionals. This report gives business leaders a path for moving forward.”

The study finds that Black professionals are more likely than White professionals to be ambitious, and they are more likely to have strong professional networks. Despite these assets, Black professionals hold only 3.2% of all executive or senior leadership roles and less than one percent of all Fortune 500 CEO positions. The report lays out the systemic racial prejudice in the workplace that underpins low representation at the top, with the following findings:

Black professionals are nearly four times as likely as White professionals to say they have experienced racial prejudice at work (58% versus 15%). Regional differences are stark: 79% of Black professionals in the Midwest say they have experienced racial prejudice at work, compared to 66% of Black professionals in the West, 56% in the South, and 44% in the Northeast.

Forty-three percent of Black executives have had colleagues use racially insensitive language in their presence.

Nearly 19% Black professionals feel that someone of their race/ethnicity would never achieve a top position at their companies, compared to only three percent of White professionals who feel this way.

Black women are less likely to have access to the same support and advocacy as White women. For instance, 35% of White women have individuals in their networks that have advocated for their ideas and skills, compared to 19% of Black women.

“We can only create change and impact when we fully understand how systemic prejudice and micro-aggressions play out in our workplaces,” said Julia Taylor Kennedy, executive vice president at CTI. “Right now, it’s a lose-lose situation. Companies are missing out on amazing talent at the top of their organizations, and Black professionals are not given the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations. This report delivers the facts and, in doing so, will spur conversations that move companies, and society, forward.”

Only 40% of all employees of all races think their companies have effective diversity and inclusion programs. Black full-time professionals are also more likely than White full-time professionals to say White women are the primary beneficiaries of diversity and inclusion efforts (29% versus 13%).

“Companies often use the phrase ‘diverse talent’ to describe underrepresented groups, but they need to understand the diversity within their diversity,” says Pooja Jain-Link, executive vice president at CTI. “Black professionals have a different experience in the workplace than professionals of other races. If companies want to truly engage and retain Black talent, they need to be courageous and design targeted interventions that take these unique experiences into account. With this report, we are calling upon leaders to think big and start a new movement that re-imagines diversity and inclusion in ways that have not been done before.”

In addition, the report finds that talented Black professionals are much more likely than White professionals to plan to opt out of their corporate jobs to start entrepreneurial ventures. Black professionals who have worked at both large and small companies are also more likely to find an environment of trust, respect, and a sense of belonging at small companies, compared to large companies. Corporations that wish to retain Black professionals should offer the same. In addition, the report delivers a roadmap that calls upon leaders to audit their workplaces, and to create conversations that awaken White employees to the workplace prejudice that their Black colleagues face.

“Study after study has shown that Black executives perform as well as or better than other executives but are not advanced to the highest levels,” said Skip Spriggs, president/CEO of The Executive Leadership Council, a research partner on the report. “The roadmap offered by CTI as a result of this study could make a difference because it is rooted in intentional, results-oriented actions designed to affect measurable, positive change.”