The Fortune 500 is making progress when it comes to Black leadership. That’s the good news. The bad news is only eight Fortune 500 companies have a Black CEO. That’s just 1.6%, a far cry from Black Americans’ 14.4% share of the population. 

Still, eight out of 500 leaders is a near-record high, second only to 2022. (The list shrank after Rosalind Brewer’s abrupt resignation as Walgreens CEO last year, and is set to shrink further when Franklin Clyburn Jr. of International Flavors & Fragrances resigns this month.) 

Diversity workplace experts say it doesn’t need to be this way. Companies can break ground in workplace equality (and some have.) But first, there are some common pitfalls to be aware of.

The ‘teddy bear’ effect 

Black men, who make up most of this year’s Black CEOs, face an unusual challenge with a peculiar name: the Teddy Bear effect.   

“The stereotype of aggressive Black men can be a barrier and an extra burden in terms of something they have to manage,” said Winny Shen, a professor at York University who studies workplace diversity. “Leaders at the top are not immune to problematic stereotypes that continue to be pervasive in society,” she added. 

As she describes it, stereotypes of Black men as aggressive mean that those with teddy-bear-like features—such as rounder cheeks or bigger eyes—advance further in the workplace. Because they are perceived as less threatening, teddy-bear or baby-faced CEOs are seen as more likely to broker the kinds of relationships required of a CEO. It’s a bizarre phenomenon that has been documented in research by social psychologist Robert Livingston, a lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Women who’ve stepped into the C-suite, meanwhile, often face gossip that “they have earned their position not through merit, but because of the societal push towards greater diversity,” Shen said. Essentially, they face peers who think they only have their job because it’s woke. 

These assumptions have effects beyond just gossip, though. As Shen explains, leadership roles depend on a leader’s ability to broker alliances, converse with peers and subordinates, and amass respect—all of which are social interactions prone to racial bias. “CEOs are highly competent individuals,” Shen said, “but business leaders are still people. In their interactions, these biases can still creep in and still create barriers.” 

A missing rung on the career ladder

Black workers make up 13% of the labor force, but just over 5% of chief executives, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The route to the top includes barriers and hurdles that can hamper people at almost all levels in a company. 

For mid-level company workers, issues include less access to sponsorship and profit and loss duties, which are vital for promotions. Harvard Business Review, which describes sponsorship as a reciprocal relationship that “turbocharges the careers of both” parties, found that while 20% of white employees have sponsors, only 5% of Black employees do.

Shen offers two explanations for why corporate America is still too white. One is that the siren song of the American Dream, with its alluring promise that ‘if you work hard enough, you can do anything,’ still plays in peoples’ ears, when reality is actually stacked against many who are not white. 

“There is a myth in the U.S. that if you work hard enough you can make it, but that doesn’t reflect peoples’ realities,” Shen said. “We want to believe that our world and the places we work are fair. But in reality, the data tells us they often are not.” 

The other reason, she says, is that some people are scared of change. In particular, those people who are already in leadership positions and have benefitted from certain demographics and environments may push back against calls for change. 

“It’s difficult for people to recognize the ways in which they have privilege,” Shen said, because it’s not meant to debate “that many people worked hard.” 

“It’s hard to admit that sometimes you were the beneficiary of things that were not under your control,” she said, but recognizing privilege is an important part of diversifying companies. 

Two steps forward, two steps back

Yet both morally and financially, the path forward is not clear. Today’s American culture wars continue raging, where feminists and activists who demand equal chances clash with the “anti-woke” and “anti-diverse.” 

This month, Utah joined a list of other states that now deems illegal any state program, office or initiative with “diversity, equality and inclusion” in its name. Eight other states have passed laws aimed at dismantling these programs on college campuses that prepare young adults for the workforce, including Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas.

Politicians including Florida Gov. (and former presidential candidate) Ron DeSantis, have defunded diversity programs that represent the majority demographics of the globe and companies, like Google and Meta, have cut back their diversity budgets last year. 

Other companies are picking up on the slack, however. Mastercard has made gains in its hiring demographics and employee pay equity. As of the end of 2022, women and people of color earn the same dollar amount as their white peers and 34% of its global senior management team are women, according to the company. Nationally, American women earn about 82 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2022, according to a Pew Research Center report, and the pay gap has barely budged in the last two decades. 

On its upper levels, Mastercard still has work to do with only 6% of its national senior management team being Black, while 63% are white. 

The remaining eight CEOs who are on the current rankings include Marvin Ellison of Lowe’s; Thasunda Brown Duckett of TIAA; Christopher Womack of Southern; David Bozeman of C.H. Robinson Worldwide; Calvin Butler Jr., of Exelon; David Rawlinson II of Qurate Retail; René Jones of M&T Bank; and Toni Townes-Whitney of SAIC

The Fortune 500 list in 2020 saw four Black CEOs; in 2022, there were six. Will this year bring more?

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