Black Execs: Still Hitting A Glass Ceiling

In March, 1988, BUSINESS WEEK published a cover story that detailed the progress of black Americans and their hard-won movement into the corporate mainstream. Besides detailing African Americans' rising income and employment prospects, the story matter-of-factly predicted the appointment of the first black CEO of a major U.S. company within a decade. Ten years later, America is still waiting.

While the thought of being lauded as the corporate equivalent of Jackie Robinson seems distasteful to many black managers, the ascension of the first black CEO of a major U.S. corporation will still be as important a "first" as Robinson's triumphs on the baseball field or Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy's winning of the White House. Business success, like politics or baseball, is a reflection of American aspirations.

The good news is that African Americans have made significant progress in Corporate America over the past decade, especially in the second and third tiers of management. A few, such as American Express President Kenneth I. Chenault, are bona fide stars. It's no longer unusual to encounter black vice-presidents at a wide range of businesses, and senior line managers long ago shed the stereotypical staff jobs that the early ranks of black execs seemed stuck with. Most important, the number of black MBAs has soared. That growing pool of African American talent provides fresh hope that a black CEO won't be an anomaly in a few years.

But for now, the limits to black corporate success appear to mirror the experience of women. The federal Glass Ceiling Commission's 1995 survey of senior-level male managers in major companies found only 0.6% of them to be African American. So the Franklin D. Raineses of the world (he is to become chief executive of Fannie Mae on Jan. 1) are even rarer than the Jill E. Barads (she is CEO of Mattel Inc.). And most senior black executives would have faced better odds pursuing a top job in academia, government, or at a nonprofit than at the largest U.S. public companies.

So what, then, is keeping blacks out of the corporate driver's seat? Traditionally, it has been the lack of tenure in senior line-management jobs. But that has certainly changed as a growing number of black execs have finally gained the 20 years of industry experience generally considered de rigueur for CEOs at many established companies.

In fact, though many managers are loath to say it, discrimination can't be ruled out as one of the reasons behind blacks' slow progress. A new National Bureau of Economic Research study, for instance, found that black entrepreneurs are twice as likely to be denied loans from banks than whites, even when they are equally creditworthy. The awarding of the CEO's chair in corporate boardrooms may also be less likely to be offered to people of color. Whatever the reason, the glass ceiling still appears to be with us--only higher.