3 Black St. Louis Women Explain How They Persisted In Corporate America
We’ve all heard the sobering statistics. More CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations are named John than are women. In the U.S., women comprise nearly half the labor force, but hold just 21% of C-suite positions (a category that includes CEOs and those who report to them directly), according to one 2019 study. For women of color, the study found that the share of C-suite jobs falls to just 4%.
But some local Black women have defied the odds — overcoming both those dismal statistics and a host of challenges on the job to rise to executive positions. Three of them were recently featured on a panel by the St. Louis Forum, which promotes the advancement of women in the area. They joined Friday’s St. Louis on the Air to share their observations and experiences with a larger audience.
They discussed the difficulties in being one of a very select few.
“The challenge is not having anyone that you can talk to that can relate to the issue that you’re dealing with,” explained Adrian Bracy, CEO of the YWCA of Metro St. Louis. “It’s lonely. It’s just lonely in this spot. You don’t want to be the only Black female in the room. You want someone who can understand, someone you can talk to.”
Danette Greer is now the global enterprise client and partner development lead for World Wide Technology. She said she left the field she’d initially chosen for her career, engineering, after being told she needed to “blend in” more.
And while working in IT and tech proved more hospitable, it came with its own challenges. “I’m a woman in a male-dominated industry,” she said. “I felt like I was getting it from so many different angles, and it became a question of, ‘Who’s ready for me? Because I have something to bring, and I’m not going to quit.’”
The women said they’d found other Black female executives to provide emotional support through sororities or professional organizations, and then took on-the-job mentoring where they could get it from white colleagues or male ones.
On the job, they said they’d found themselves battling notions of company “culture” or “fit” — which can be a way to excuse hiring more people who look like the white, male managers running the place — and the rejection of their ideas with phrases like “that’s not how we do things.”
Zundra Bryant, senior director in HR Operations Services at Centene Corp., noted that “when you are the ‘only’ or the ‘first’ in the room, that’s usually the response you get initially.
“And you have to make the decision: Is the emotional energy it takes to persevere worth the effort? A lot of times it is, and sometimes it isn’t.”
Being asked to fit into a culture that rejects you, Bracy added, “is a true burden, trying not to be yourself. If you’re trying to fit into a culture that’s not aligned with your personal values or your personal mission, chances are, you’re not going to stay.”
Studies have suggested that corporate America’s problem with people of color, and Black women in particular, is less a recruitment problem than a retention and promotion problem.
Greer urged people in a position to change their company culture, or uplift someone of a culture other than their own, to act.
“We need to pause and ask, ‘What are we going to do about it tangibly?’ We cannot always be reactive to the threats and the fears of those who feel like they have to defend their territory every time it looks like somebody like me is being empowered,” she said. “We have to get past that. If not, these listening sessions will start to sound more like entertainment, instead of real, actionable discussions that drive change.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.