What Black Women Know About Getting to the Top

What Black Women Know About Getting to the Top

Any list of top CEOs reveals a startling lack of diversity. Among the leaders of Fortune 500 companies, for example, just 32 are women. With the recent departure of Ken Chenault from American Express, just three are African-American and not one is an African-American woman. What’s going on?

This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the African-American Student Union at Harvard Business School, and in preparation for the commemoration, HBR studied the careers of the approximately 2,300 alumni of African descent who have graduated from HBS since its founding in 1908. From that group HBR identified 532 African-American women who graduated from 1977 to 2015. It analyzed the career paths of the 67 of them who have attained the position of chair, CEO, or other C-level executive in a corporation or senior managing director or partner in a professional services firm, and conducted in-depth interviews with 30 of those 67.

From Harvard Business Review. Story by Laura Morgan Roberts, Anthony J. Mayo, Robin J. Ely and David A. Thomas.

How did these women beat the odds?

“I think the experience of being black in America creates resilience—a steady steadiness. And it creates courage and pride. Not pride in a boastful way, but being proud, as you need to be in moments when you feel completely rejected, completely ignored, overlooked, sidelined.” —A senior executive of aFortune 50 financial services firm

In simple terms, the answer to the question of what it takes to succeed can be reduced to a single capacity: resilience.

Three Keys to Resilience

Let’s look at how the women’s resilience was reinforced and enhanced through emotional intelligence, authenticity, and agility.

Emotional intelligence

A key component of this skill is the ability to manage and regulate one’s feelings. It’s easy to envision the anger and resentment a rising executive might experience at being repeatedly doubted or ignored. But the women we spoke with resisted knee-jerk reactions that might have damaged their careers and developed the wherewithal to respond in more thoughtful and constructive ways. They also became skilled at picking up on others’ emotions and reacting strategically. “I’m really good at reading environments,” said a senior executive at a Fortune 100 consumer-products firm. They exhibited an acute awareness of how others perceived them—a form of empathy. “You have to be able to step outside yourself and see how other people see you,” said the vice chair of a major investment bank. Most important, when the way others viewed them diverged from their own perceptions, they refused to be knocked off stride, holding on to their increasingly well-defined sense of self. One chief financial officer described the process this way: “You have to seek out messages and people who affirm your identity.”

EQ is especially useful for those who frequently encounter bias. Research is clear, for example, that successful black women walk a tightrope of emotional expression. Although eager to advance, they may be penalized if they appear “too ambitious.” They are often characterized as “intimidating,” and their mistakes are apt to be held against them, especially when the “angry black woman” stereotype is triggered. “I almost feel you have to overrely on EQ, because people come to the table with natural biases—you have to be hypersensitive and patient,” said a senior executive in a financial services firm, adding, “While some can react immediately to a difficult situation, as a black person I am conscious about modulating and tempering my response.” She was especially insightful when reflecting on the mixed blessing of this ability: “On one hand, it’s great that I have developed this skill, but on the other hand, it’s sad that I had to.”


This skill involves aligning one’s personal sense of self with its outward expression—actively crafting one’s identity and revealing it in a way that feels genuine. Like emotional intelligence, it requires a high level of self-awareness. Research cited elsewhere in this issue makes clear that disclosing personal information—a key part of behaving authentically—can be especially tricky for minorities. (See “Diversity and Authenticity,” HBR March–April 2018.) The executives we interviewed found ways to master that challenge. They described being candid about their opinions, transparent about their motives, and vocally committed to their values. In fact, “transparency” and “candor” were two of the words they used most frequently to describe their leadership styles.

“The times I felt I did my absolute best at work were when I had the support of a good leader who understood me and what I could bring.” —A global finance director

For these women, authenticity has also involved aligning their racial identity with their leadership positions. Some found roles within their companies that explicitly invited them to draw on that identity, giving them latitude to bring it front and center. They were then able to parlay the visibility afforded by those roles into broader opportunities for leadership. For instance, when her employer set a goal of investing in minority-owned businesses, one woman—now a senior investment officer—stepped into an intrapreneurial leadership role by building a business that became the firm’s primary strategic imperative. Suddenly her gender, race, and residence in a historically black community became visible assets that deepened her authentic engagement with her career. “That became a turning point of my job—I was actually able to bring these differences to work every day,” she told us. “All of a sudden there were unique differences I was bringing to the table.” Other women launched entrepreneurial ventures that aligned their passions for business and social engagement, serving the needs of diverse stakeholders across the globe.


This is the ability to effectively confront and nimbly transform obstacles and roadblocks into opportunities throughout one’s career. The women we interviewed were well aware that many of their colleagues and bosses held low expectations of them—expectations that continued, in some cases, even as they advanced into senior jobs. The CEO of a large social-services organization put it this way: “I can’t say that I ever went into a job where people just looked at my credentials and accepted them as legitimate—there was always this question of ‘Are you really qualified?’ or ‘Did you really do the things you said you did?’ I don’t think I reached a point in my career, other than my last role, when that wasn’t a question.”

Read more at Harvard Business Review.