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The Essential Podcast, Episode 45: An Expectation for Change — Black Professionals in Corporate America

S&P Global

Daily Update: November 24, 2021

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Listen: The Essential Podcast, Episode 45: An Expectation for Change — Black Professionals in Corporate America

About this Episode

Lanaya Irvin, CEO of Coqual, joins the Essential Podcast to discuss the organization’s research study on how Black professionals working in Corporate America understand their experience, and what’s driving their search for new opportunities.

The Essential Podcast from S&P Global is dedicated to sharing essential intelligence with those working in and affected by financial markets. Host Nathan Hunt focuses on those issues of immediate importance to global financial markets—macroeconomic trends, the credit cycle, climate risk, ESG, global trade, and more—in interviews with subject matter experts from around the world.

Listen and subscribe to this podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, and Deezer.

Show Notes

The Essential Podcast is edited and produced by Molly Mintz.

Nathan Hunt: This is The Essential Podcast from S&P Global, my name is Nathan Hunt. If you've listened to this podcast over time, you may have noticed us returning, again and again, to issues around diversity in the corporate world. The reason we keep returning to this topic is that diversity goes to the heart of the tricky social factor in ESG measurement. The S factor is, in many ways, the most poorly defined part of impact investing. I have to believe that if we could understand what we were trying to mitigate, we could measure with much more accuracy.

Lanaya Irvin: I'm Lanaya Irvin, CEO of Coqual, which is a global think tank that conducts research on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and advises companies on best practices globally.

Nathan Hunt: The research Lanaya and I will be discussing today is called "Being Black in Corporate America: An Intersectional Exploration." It came out in December of 2019, or as I like to call it "the before time." The conclusions are, if anything, more important today. Lanaya, I have been so looking forward to talking to you and to having this interview. As I'm sure you're aware, I had done an earlier podcast with Julia Taylor Kennedy, also of Coqual, on belonging at the workplace. And I read the article that we're going to talk about today, "Being Black in Corporate America" with just huge engagement, so I'm excited to have you here.

Lanaya Irvin: Nathan, I'm delighted to be here.

Nathan Hunt: Can you tell me about Coqual's approach to the study on being Black in corporate America? What was the methodology you used to generate this report? And why did you use that methodology?

Lanaya Irvin: In approaching the study, previous research has pointed to the fact that Black talent does face disproportionate barriers in corporate spaces. But as far as the approach, as with most of our research, we conducted this study mixed methods. So a combination of a nationally representative survey here in the U.S. supplemented by focus groups, interviews to put those findings in the context. We've spent time with our team, in the past, so, you know, we really put rigor behind the lit review and the qualitative data. We are a really fun group of thinkers and data analysts and researchers whose goal is to leverage the data and uplift the employee voice in a way that brings visibility to the barriers and experiences across lines of difference. So we always try to offer a framework and a set of solutions, and we did that in this particular study. But we use mixed methods because it's something that our company partners value. They appreciate the way we present findings in a way that's accessible and usable to the business community.

Nathan Hunt: One of the things I really appreciate that you guys do is this mix of the quantitative survey methods and the qualitative methods. Because particularly when you talk about the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion, you can get lost in the statistics and not understand that this actually affects people's lives. Seeing some of the qualitative answers, the personal answers being brought out in the research report really brings this home in a way that I think just a series of statistics wouldn't.

Lanaya Irvin: You're exactly right. Right, I mean, numbers alone don't tell the story. You actually have to spend time with, I mean, we always have a set of advisors we spend time with talent, really trying to bring to life, the lived experience. That's what hits home. That's what actually makes each insight impactful.

Nathan Hunt: Now that I've said that, Lanaya, I'm going to actually engage with some statistics because I think it's important just to level set, to understand why it is, we're talking about being Black in corporate America. Why is this a relevant topic of conversation? Essentially, what's the problem? Right. So fill in the blanks here for me. According to U.S. Census data, 13.4% of the population is Black. What percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs are black men?

Lanaya Irvin: 0.4 of 1%. So two out of 500.

Nathan Hunt: And how many Black women are fortune 500 CEOs?

Lanaya Irvin: The same percentage, two of 500, but we're all delighted to see two black women now taking on chief executive roles this year with Roz Brewer, leading Walgreens Boots Alliance, and Thasunda Duckett at the helm of TIAA.

Nathan Hunt: What about the percentage of Black senior executives in these companies?

Lanaya Irvin: Well, when we think about senior leaders, the senior executive title drops to 3.2%. If we're looking at executive and senior executives.

Nathan Hunt: And the percentage of black professionals at these companies.

Lanaya Irvin: Black professionals, 8%.

Nathan Hunt: So you're looking at less than half the number of black professionals you would expect to see and significantly worse percentages as you move up the ranks within these companies.

Lanaya Irvin: Definitely. You definitely see a tremendous opportunity as you move through the ranks. We can actually look at this by considering the pipeline of potential Black professionals at the college level.

You noted that 13.4% number, as far as the population. We can actually look at the entrance of Black professionals and to these spaces and point to data around college degree holders, Black people represent 10% of college grads in the U.S., and that's been true for about 20 years. So if we were to see steady pull through rates and advancement within corporate America, at some point we'd expect to find 50 Black fortune 500 CEOs, but we're nowhere near that, so we have plenty of work to do.

Nathan Hunt: Lanaya, that's really interesting to me. It sounds like you are optimistic about growth in the future. Is that accurate?

Lanaya Irvin: Well, there's always optimism, yes Let's be honest, there hasn't been much progress. Right? In fact, growth in these numbers has been stagnant. During this study, our team spent time with many senior leaders and chief executives. One of those executives, Dick Parsons, who was the former CEO of Time Warner and a few of the Fortune 500 leaders that we sought out as a part of this work. You know he even mentioned, he was surprised that, you know, following the cohort that he was a part of, right, think Ken Chenault, Stan O'Neal, that group of leaders, he thought that that was going to open up the flood gates, right. And it didn't happen. And so a part of the work when we conducted this study was to really get at the root of why.

Nathan Hunt: I saw in your research that 19% of Black professionals believe that a person of their race could never achieve a top position in their company. That means that one in five Black professionals believe that advancement is impossible at their own company due to race. This isn't an abstraction for them. They believe this about the place they go every day to earn a living. Is it your sense, based on your research, that Black professionals have essentially given up seeking advancement?

Lanaya Irvin: Well, when you see very few leaders who reflect your image, sitting in key roles, it's obvious why it might be difficult even for rising stars and those with C-suite potential to really see a pathway for. And yes, our data shows it leads to attrition, talent leaves. In fact, our study found that Black professionals were three and a half times as likely to be interested in leaving to start their own venture. And it was interesting. We looked at why and a lot of Black professionals and those that would prefer starting their own venture, or perhaps joining a startup level more entrepreneurial environment. The goal was to seek out roles that would offer greater respect for their contributions, offer ability to put their ideas to work. These are the things that they should be able to achieve in large corporate firms as well.

To your question, no, I do not believe that Black professionals have given up on corporate America. The ambition is still there and Black talent is no different in that we are looking to advance meaningful work inside some of the world's most innovative companies. Black professionals want to thrive, be recognized for their contributions, and most importantly, advanced at a rate that aligns with one's potential. So, no, I do not think Black professionals have given up on corporate America, but I definitely believe that there is now an expectation for some change going forward and a bit of optimism around company's willingness to do that.

Nathan Hunt: Interestingly, your study shows that Black professionals describe themselves as more ambitious than white professionals describe themselves, yet Black professionals also feel they need to work harder in order to advance. A clear majority, two-thirds of black professionals, believe that someone of their race needs to work harder in order to advance. There's a tension there between the desire to achieve and the difficulty of achieving. How do you believe that tension affects Black professionals?

Lanaya Irvin: There is indeed attention and for ambitious Black professionals, that desire becomes only greater when you're faced with that difficulty. You want it more. We spent time with Black talent at various band levels across sectors. And we heard stories from interviewees. So many of them who have grown up with big aspirations, very goal oriented their entire lives. So they set goal after goal and continually reach them. And then when they arrived in corporate spaces, they found something different waiting for them, right. Real headwinds, bias. And ultimately they're experiencing this long-term impact on development opportunities, right, on advancement. And so when we think about the tension, it's important because we can't overlook the other side of that particular data point you're calling out. This was a key finding in our Being Black study and it highlights a perception gap. So where 65% of Black professionals. Yeah, Black employees have to work harder to advance, our report found that only 16% of white professionals agree with that statement, meaning the gap between what Black employees are actually experiencing and what their peers understand or believe is very wide. Everyone loves to believe that they got where they are on their own merit, without the help of anyone else, without wind in their sails. And so this myth of meritocracy really makes it difficult to see bias and barriers that other people are facing.

Nathan Hunt: Let's talk about regional differences because this was a part of your study that truly surprised me. Different percentages of Black professionals in different parts of the United States talk about being exposed to racial prejudice at work different amounts. How did that break down regionally?

Lanaya Irvin: You're exactly right. I mean, the regional differences are stark and it actually surprised our research team as well. We found that 79% of Black professionals in the Midwest say they experienced racial prejudice at work, 79%. Then you compare that to 66% of Black professionals in the West 56% in the South and 44% in the Northeast. As we set out on this work, the clinical research team probably expected to find the highest numbers in the American South. That wasn't the case. What our research actually found is that in big cities, commercial centers and regions, where there are higher Black populations and a greater number of Black employees in a work environment, like you might see in Atlanta. Well, in those markets, people have more exposure to Black talent, more likely to encounter people who counter stereotypes. In regions, where there's perhaps lower population density or a lower concentration of Black people in general, they're just fewer opportunities to disrupt the unconscious bias that tends to shape our interactions day to day.

Nathan Hunt: I know from previous Coqual research that you guys have found extremely high percentages of white people really only socialize with other white people. I believe the number was 91%.

Lanaya Irvin: That is exactly right. But also our research points to the fact that we often don't live among one another. When we think about the kind of not only social circles, it shows up in the way talent is engaged as well. We've done ample research around sponsorship and access to senior executive advocates. You put that 91% number alongside the reality that 71% of sponsors, senior executives say that they tend to mentor or groom proteges of the same gender, the same race. So it makes it really difficult when we think about the way we live outside of work to really disrupt, you know, kind of bias or some of the barriers that makes it really difficult to overcome some of the challenges that we face when we think about prejudice in the workplace.

Nathan Hunt: As you guys have pointed out in research previously, the point of maximum integration for most Americans with people of a different race or ethnicity is in the workplace, which makes the work of diversity, equity and inclusion necessarily more prominent in the workplace than it would be in your daily life, in your schools or in your communities because you're not integrated in those areas. So does that inform the work that Coqual does? This knowledge that the workplace is the front lines of integration in this country?

Lanaya Irvin: Absolutely. Absolutely. It is definitely one thing that amplifies our call to action as a think tank. We know that it has been an extraordinary year, year and a half. We think about the global pandemic. We think about this awakening to systemic inequity and conversations around race. The workplace and leaders are, I mean, obviously dealing with the challenging reality that for the first time, they're helping their leaders, their emerging talent, awaken to challenges with diversity, challenges with inclusion, what inequity looks like in, kind of, key processes within the company and people are using muscles for the very first time. Because to your point, in a lot of cases, we're not forced to use these same muscles outside of our offices, right outside of that glass.

Nathan Hunt: When I first read the statistics about the regional differences in how many Black professionals had been exposed to racial prejudice at work, I was feeling pretty good about living and working in the Northeast. I thought, you know, we're coming out number one at 44%. But then I realized that nearly half of my Black colleagues, according to the numbers, were experiencing racial prejudice in the workplace. Were you surprised to see the numbers that high, even in the Northeast?

Lanaya Irvin: Well, you know, actually Nathan you're correct in that 44% in the Northeast is still a significant number, meaning rates of prejudice being experienced in the work environment is still very much material in the Northeast. Anything above zero should be alarming to us. But unfortunately, no, I wasn't surprised. I spent most of my career on Wall Street, all of that time and client facing roles in global banking and markets, so I know firsthand the experience of being the only Black body in a room, the only Black female of my title on a floor, of the only LGBTQ emerging leader in a particular group. And I experienced microaggressions on a regular basis, even in a company that I loved and I thrived and I did advance, but you have to be aware of the fact that you're managing bias. When leading teams, you know, having to keep in the front of your mind, the fact that I might be leading a group of people who've never been managed by a Black person before or by a female leader before. You're constantly managing lack of exposure to difference and bias. And so I wasn't surprised, we live in a very, very, those of us in New York city, a very diverse city, a city that prides itself on being global. But at the same time, the way we engage and interact in the workplace oftentimes is at odds with that same vision for our city.

Nathan Hunt: I was interested to note that Black Millennials seem to have less patience with the myriad compromises forced on Black professionals in corporate America. Do you believe this is a generational difference in attitude and approach? Or do you think that these younger Black professionals will, with experience, grow more jaded and less idealistic in their expectations?

Lanaya Irvin: You know, in my opinion, this definitely seems to be a generational shift in attitudes and expectations. Younger professionals in general are going to be shaping corporate workspaces going forward. So when we actually conducted the study, during some of our interviews and focus groups, we heard from other generations and focus groups, so Boomers, Gen X-ers, you know, we often heard from them this belief that yes, you know, things can be challenging in the workplace, right? Yes, we face headwinds and perhaps even bias, but you have to figure out how to navigate it. Whereas millennials, we're saying that first off. No, this isn't right. And then second, perhaps this isn't for me. There was this really intense desire from millennials to bring the same self into work as the self that makes them feel whole in their private lives. There seemed to be this real burden with crafting an authentic self that fit the work environment. And what's more is, you know, Millennials are, and we found our own data, they're witnessing inequity in the world at large, and then they're making direct connections between that and what they're experiencing in the workplace. You know, I personally look forward to what the next decade brings because Millennials are transitioning into leadership seats and have an opportunity to set culture going forward. And so as the generation kind of matures, and deepens experience in corporate workplace in general, I actually hope that this generation and Centennial's coming right behind them, I hope that they continue to strive for spaces that welcome authenticity strive for greater equity. Even if they do experience bias or a more challenging road towards their kind of career aspirations, the desire to be seen and celebrated for one's unique contributions will always be there. And so I'm optimistic about the change this generation is going to demand.

Nathan Hunt: Lanaya, you worked on Wall Street for a long time. You are Black, so that was an aspect of your identity that you couldn't hide in the workplace. You're a woman, that's an aspect of your identity that you could not hide in the workplace. When you talk about being an LGBTQ leader. This is an aspect of your identity that you could have chosen to hide. What drove your decision to bring more of your whole self into the workplace? What drove that need for authenticity for you?

Lanaya Irvin: I will tell you there was a tremendous amount of covering that occurred in my career on Wall Street, at least the first, I want to say seven or eight years. I hyper feminized, I wore silk blouses every day, I wore pearls, you know, I straightened my hair. It was one large performance, but I was still an out emerging leader. Right, and so I covered so that I wouldn't be perceived as too masculine. I straightened my natural hair. The goal was okay, let's wear the uniform, prioritize fit so that the focus is on my output. The focus is on the content, my contributions to the business and our client. But early on, that was the only trade off I was willing to make to my authenticity. I'm pretty unapologetically Black and unapologetically out and queer. And so while I didn't make that trade off, as it relates to being out and sharing that I was LGBTQ and being involved in corporate activism that championed LGBTQ inclusion globally, I was covering so that the intersections of diversity that could have potentially created headwinds for me, if you think about Wall Street 10, 15, 16 years ago. Yeah. So, I mean, it's one of those things where it's really difficult for me not to bring the best of myself and to any environment, and while I covered in way of the corporate uniform, I definitely want it to be seen for my contributions and so I try not to make any other trade-offs.

Nathan Hunt: What are the consequences for American companies, knowing how their Black employees feel? You have employees who feel thwarted, they feel disrespected, they feel unable to bring their whole selves to work, they feel unable to advance. How does that effect the companies where they work?

Lanaya Irvin: There's definitely a cultural impact, but I think it's also important to note that there's a commercial impact as well. High-performing teams tend to require fully engaged employees. How can you actually shape a high performing organization without that engagement? And I believe in the world in which we operate, a rapidly transforming world, you know, the best companies are going to be those that are able to fully activate their talent and extract the best from them.

And so when you have Black talent and other cohorts from underrepresented groups, disengaged, disenchanted in corporate workspaces, there's little hope for fostering that sense of belonging or unlocking what we like to call at Coqual, that group genius that drives innovation and leads companies to outperformance.

Nathan Hunt: I know that Coqual will works with companies on diversity issues, this is part of the work you guys do. How would you advise a company where 44% of Black employees were encountering racial prejudice and 19% of Black employees believe that someone who looked like them could never be a senior executive. What would you tell them to work on?

Lanaya Irvin: Well, first I'd encourage them to audit their culture. To uncover dynamics at play in the work environment, any cultural weakness that would allow that racial prejudice or bias to go unchecked, lean in to some of that organizational introspection and do it with some urgency. So I would say that. Now, as it relates to representation, if it's a company truly committed to increasing representation at the most senior levels, so that, you know, we don't have the issue that you're referring to, where Black leaders can't envision themselves in seats of power at the company. It's critical for the firm to really uproot some structural barriers, right? Look at systemic issues that might be driving inequity. That's looking at your kind of talent acquisition and recruiting, performance review processes, promotion rates, obviously compensation, but basically looking at where bias creeps into enterprise-wide systems, because these systems ultimately influence who advances into seats of power and who does not.

Nathan Hunt: It's hard for me not to look at this study and think about the concept of emotional labor, which was talked about a lot in the last couple of years where it concerns women and men and how women were taking on more, what is called emotional labor. So just as a definition, it's the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of the job. Specifically workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, coworkers, and managers. Do you feel that Black professionals by virtue of being Black are having to put in more emotional labor than their white colleagues? And if so, how would that affect a person over time?

Lanaya Irvin: Well, absolutely. You know, emotional labor is a really great, I think, concept to frame what so many Black employees are experiencing right now. Oftentimes, you know, Black talent are self-regulating, code switching, downplaying, parts of one's identity to fit, you know, stale definitions of executive presence, definitions of leadership that weren't formed with Black professionals in mind. And so there's definitely this additional work, right. Instead of focusing , subject matter expertise, quality of your work, there's this ever-present kind of need to adapt one's behavior, right? Or to be resilient in the face of bias, emotionally strong if we think about the current times, we find ourselves in, right, these moments of societal fracture, because beyond the workplace, you know, obviously Black people are also digesting the reality of racial injustice and economic exclusion. So, yes, in many ways I think this talent cohort is paying a Black tax in most every aspect of their lives. So, yes, greater levels of emotional labor is almost a requirement, but I think it's a part of being resilient in some of these spaces.

Nathan Hunt: Lanaya, I want to thank you for coming on the podcast, and I want to tell you that I am really looking forward to Coqual's next piece of research so that I can have you or Julia back on the podcast again. So thank you.

Lanaya Irvin: Thank you for having me. And we cannot wait to come back and talk to you about equity.

Nathan Hunt: The Essential Podcast is produced by Molly Mintz with assistance from Kurt Burger and Camille McManus. At S&P Global we accelerate progress in the world by providing intelligence that is essential for companies, governments, and individuals to make decisions with conviction. From the majestic heights of 55 Water Street in Manhattan, I am Nathan Hunt. Thank you for listening.