There were some tepid celebrations a few weeks ago when Fortune announced there was a “record-high” number of female CEOs running Fortune 500 companies this year. That “record high” number to celebrate? Thirty seven. Out of 500.
More disturbing: As Fortune’s The Broadsheet pointed out at the time, not a single one of those 37 was a Black woman.
We have harped and shown data and pointed out and griped about the importance of companies becoming more diverse, but while some gains get made in some demographics, Black women remain wildly underrepresented in American boardrooms. Meanwhile, new data shows that they are paying the highest price, economically speaking, in this recession, according to The Washington Post and others.
Black women face a larger gender pay gap than white women, higher likelihood of not being considered for jobs and promotions, and while I (rightly) bemoan the fact that female founders get less than 3% of the venture capital invested every year, Black women do not even register a percentage point.
When I was a journalist trying to hold Silicon Valley accountable for living up to its stated “meritocracy!” values, people would push back asking why I was picking on poor tech. Aren’t other industries just as bad?
Couple things: First, spare me the whatabout-ism. I cover tech and work in tech, so I’m gonna write about what I know. Second, tech talks up the ideals that you don’t need to have experience or hold power in the status quo to disrupt it. It claims to be a meritocracy, a place where anyone can thrive regardless of nationality or education or experience. But somehow that “anyone” always seems to end up being white men who dropped out of Ivy League schools…If tech doesn’t want to be questioned on fairness, tech shouldn’t claim to be all about fairness. Third, startups and fast-growing tech companies represent a disproportionate amount of wealth creation in this country. By locking Black Americans out of it, you are exacerbating the wealth divides that already exist in this country.
Here’s the final point: Since when has Silicon Valley ever been content to be just as good (or bad) as other industries? Silicon Valley is an ecosystem that wakes up every day throwing out preconceived notions of how the laws of business and physics work, believing nothing cannot be questioned, disrupted, changed, revolutionized, and done fundamentally better.
Laws? Those can be changed. Consumer behavior? Oh, we can actually change it pretty easily if we give them something good enough with the right marketing. Colonizing Mars? Why not! Laws of gravity? What are those, again? Autonomous vehicles? Oh, that’s how we’ll all get around in five years….
But finding a Black woman to hire? Oh, that’s just too hard. You see, the pipeline…
Tech companies do hard things as a reason to exist. When they tell you something is “too hard,” what they are saying is they don’t care. It isn’t a priority.
Well, this week, we saw another reason why companies sorely need Black executives and leaders in their companies. Day after day, I got awkward emails in my inbox from white founders with all-white management teams telling me how dedicated they are to Black Lives Matter, where they are donating money, and what they are doing to be better allies.
It’s not that I doubt the sincerity of these notes. As a white founder, I have been spending most of my week listening. We have been lucky to have amazing Black women in the Chairman Mom community who have stepped up to become our leaders during this time. They are leading virtual workshops on anti-racist parenting, on how to be economic allies to Black women, on going beyond words with your allyship, and they’ve had a lot of private conversations with me about how we can better support them. (You should check these events out and attend if you are struggling with next steps beyond discomfort. You should also hire and pay these women, and many more who do this crucial work professionally.)
I’m eternally grateful for them. But I’m also aware that, as a company, we could have been a lot better on this if we had Black women in full-time leadership roles. Our lack of diversity was my failing as a CEO. And what was embarrassing before is a glaring omission now.
I criticized Facebook years ago in a keynote for all its stated goals of how crucial diversity was for their future as a business, and the fact that they hired one additional Black woman the year after they made those statements. Fast-forward to the Facebook of today. Its own employees are walking out because they fear it is propping up a white supremacist regime. Black leaders who’ve met with Mark Zuckerberg have come away flummoxed at his total lack of understanding. “He did not demonstrate understanding of historic or modern-day voter suppression and he refused to acknowledge how Facebook is facilitating Trump’s call for violence against protesters,” said Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights after meeting with him.
These two things are connected. Connected at the level of showing us their priorities as a company; and connected in the utter inability to get the severity of this problem at Facebook’s highest levels. I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg. But in both cases, Facebook—a company with unlimited resources and reach—showed us who it is.
I think the reason you’ve seen so many white people frantically posting memes and black-out squares on Instagram this week is because they don’t know what to do, but want to do something. I’m sure a lot of that is well-intentioned. But it’s also a sign of how hard it is for us to sit in our discomfort and do the internal work of examining our roles in a white supremacist system. As so many have pointed out, that discomfort is nothing compared to what Black people endure living in a white supremacist system. And so we need to sit with it and do that work ourselves, not broadcast it.
Your privilege may mean it took a while to even begin to understand what it is like to be the mother of a Black son who leaves the house every day into a terrifyingly dangerous world for him. To even start to comprehend what it’s like to not feel protected by law enforcement but actively threatened by cops. To understand what white fragility is and what anti-racism is. If it took a week like this for you to start to understand, OK. That’s where you are. You are asking for grace because you couldn’t get here on your own before now, because of your lived experience as a white person.
But that’s all the more reason you need to hire and promote into senior leadership positions those people who do live it.
If you truly care about supporting this cause and running your business according to these values, that’s barely table stakes. Anything less is just an awkward marketing email.
Today’s new questions on Chairman Mom:
- Have you read “Untamed”? If so what did you think of it?
- How do you deal with shame surrounding your anxiety?
- Am I a sellout for settling discrimination/retaliation?