Increasing the representation of minority ethnic women in management and leadership

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Black women writing in notebook in front of computer screen

By Dr Etlyn Kenny
Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham

While white women face a glass ceiling, many minority ethnic women face a concrete ceiling – their route to leadership is more opaque and much more difficult to crack.

Much attention and focus has gone into increasing the number of women in top jobs, with some notable successes and some areas for improvement. The increase in the number of women on the boards of listed companies is a success story, but more needs to happen to increase the number of women in the most influential executive level roles. The lack of ethnic diversity in women holding senior roles in UK companies also needs to change.

Minority ethnic women, who sit further away from the white male leader prototype, have to overcome both sexism and racism to progress to senior roles. Research comparing the leadership journeys of minority ethnic and white women highlights the additive nature of racism and sexism on this journey. While white women face a glass ceiling, many minority ethnic women face a concrete ceiling – their route to leadership is more opaque and much more difficult to crack.

A lack of sponsorship and role models contributes to the opaqueness of the route to leadership for minority ethnic women. With less access to influential informal networks, it is harder for them to see how to navigate a route to those senior roles and gain the required visibility. Wyatt & Sylvester (2015) describe the route to leadership for minority ethnic employees as a labyrinth with all of its twists, turns and dead ends. Minority ethnic women have fewer guides to help them to unravel the clues to find their way through this maze. They do not get as much informal mentoring and coaching and their informal networks are more likely to be made up of more junior colleagues who have not traversed the route to leadership themselves.

More mentoring and sponsorship is needed for minority ethnic women to help them to develop their leadership capabilities and support them towards senior roles. Minority ethnic women report fewer opportunities and more challenges to gaining leadership roles. They also face more questions about their appropriateness for leadership roles in organisations where most employees did not look like them. Formal policies to ensure equal access to career development opportunities are important but an over-reliance on these can obscure the fact that informal networks already do provide a great deal of support to aspiring leaders. This support needs to be more widely shared.

In addition, we need to make space for leaders, whilst behaving appropriately, to be themselves. Leadership is a relational activity. Leaders build and motivate teams to achieve organisational goals and need to feel a degree of acceptance to do that effectively. Minority ethnic women leaders do not want to have to pretend to be someone else in order to fit an existing leader prototype. They do not wish to feel that who they are as a minority ethnic person is not valued. Neither do they wish to be ‘boxed in’ by stereotypes of what their ethnicity should signal for their careers as leadership. Environments that can genuinely embrace cultural difference and allow minority ethnic leaders to be comfortable and feel trusted and supported will be healthier places for minority ethnic women leaders to grow.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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