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How Women of Color Get to Senior Management

How do women of color in midlevel leadership roles successfully develop and advance within an organization? To answer this question, Dr. Cindy Pace, faculty for the Master of Science in Human Capital Management program at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies, conducted a case study as part of her dissertation research involving 23 women of color at a Fortune 500 company, and summarized her findings in a Harvard Business Review article.

Dr. Pace identifies four primary ways the women in her sample developed and advanced toward their goals:

1. They wanted power and influence. The women had high ambitions to hold executive leadership roles with high status, power, and influence. This aspiration served as a motivator for them in making trade-offs to progress into top leadership, including making lateral moves and working long hours.

2. They confidently seized opportunities. Transitioning from first-line leaders to midlevel leaders required women to believe in their ability to perform across a variety of situations, identify and seize opportunities, and promote their capabilities and interests.

3. They pursued management challenges. To advance, the women needed access to managing people, critical negotiations, new businesses ventures, and external client relations. These situations involved complex assignments focusing on strategy, product development, business operations, and financial management. While the women may have started small, their responsibilities and the scope of their work increased in complexity over time.

4. They cultivated influential mentors. Having influential senior leaders—including men and women of color—serve as mentors, advisers, and role models provided emerging women managers with the tacit knowledge needed to navigate their company’s leadership structure. Mentors also advised on some of the less-talked-about necessities for staying on a desired career path, such as boosting resilience, coping with difficult emotions, and managing hypervisibility.

Although women must be intrinsically motivated to achieve leadership roles and opportunities, Dr. Pace found that companies also must take a role in fostering diversity in their leadership pipeline. She recommends companies educate managers about the work realities faced by women of color, integrate conversations on workplace biases into sponsorship programs, and ensure women of color’s access to essential business experiences.

Read the full report at Harvard Business Review and learn more about the Master of Science in Human Capital Management program at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies.