Jill Kirschenbaum

(WOMENSENEWS)–After 18 years of publishing the highly-regarded 100 Best Companies for Working Mothers List, Working Mother magazine has begun enumerating the companies that are most hospitable to women of color as well.

It’s a short list.

American Express, Fannie Mae and IBM.

To make the cut, the three companies had to demonstrate that they not only employ women of color in executive, professional, and managerial positions, but that they are also committed to diversity and assisting women of color in job advancement.

To create the list, Working Mother magazine, based in New York City, offered an online application to for-profit American corporations–both privately and publicly held–with at least 3000 employees and $500 million in annual revenue. In completing the application, company representatives answered questions about employee demographics, programs directed at diversity and advancement and managerial responsibility for overseeing such programs. Also a random sample of women-of-color executives, managers and professionals were asked to fill out an anonymous online survey. In the end, 1115 women of color were surveyed.

Although 100 companies downloaded applications, only 10 submitted them.

“We knew it would take the brave companies to say, ‘We’re going to step up and apply, even if we think we might not make it,'” said Jill Kirschenbaum, editor in chief of Working Mother magazine. The magazine does not reveal the companies that applied, but didn’t make the cut.

Numbers Go Only So Far

Raw data on numbers and demographics of employees is important in determining which companies are making an effort to recruit and advance women of color, Kirschenbaum says, and adds that feedback from the women themselves is vital.

“When you’re dealing with race and ethnicity in the work place, numbers only go so far,” Kirschenbaum said. “To understand the true culture of a company, you have to ask the women who are working in it.”

According to the survey results, women of color are generally satisfied at the three companies on the list. At American Express, the New York financial-services concern, 79 percent of women find the company’s values concerning diversity are similar to their own, and 81 percent plan on staying with the corporation for at least the next year.

Eighty-three percent of the surveyed women of color employees of the nation’s largest home lender Fannie Mae, based in Washington, D.C., plan to maintain their employment over the next year. Seventy five percent find Fannie Mae’s diversity ideals to be mostly in-line with their own. IBM, the Armonk, N.Y., information-technologies developer and manufacturer, also boasts high satisfaction rates among women of color, with 74 percent believing IBM’s principles concerning diversity are akin to their own and 83 percent planning to still work at IBM a year from now.

Many of the women of color surveyed–employees of companies both on and off the list–say they must often work harder than their white co-workers in order to gain recognition. Women who feel their bosses “think of them as women of color” are especially dissatisfied, with more than half reporting they believe their advancement has been stifled by their race and gender. By contrast, only 18 percent of the entire survey group said they felt being a woman of color has hindered their progress.

More women of color are entering the corporate world, yet they are less likely than men and white women to fill higher positions and earn larger salaries, according to Kirschenbaum. Thirty-nine percent of the women surveyed hold graduate degrees, but only 31 percent are employed in managerial or executive positions.

“Representation of women of color in the workplace in terms of management jobs and above is still very low,” Kirschenbaum said. “Only 8 percent of all managers in corporate America are women of color, even though they make up 14 percent of the total workforce, for example. That’s a big issue.”

Corporate Culture Pressures

Also at issue is the pressure placed on women of color to assimilate into the corporate world, which often establishes a divide between who women are and who they feel they can be at work. There is “pressure to fit in. the feeling that you have to leave half of who you are outside of work,” Kirschenbaum said. “And at the same time there’s the desire to want to be yourself. It’s a paradox.”

The three companies selected for the list have set up a variety of methods for dealing with these and other challenges facing working women of color. American Express, led by African American Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Chenault, surveys employees yearly on diversity issues and rates managers on leadership qualities that include skills and attitudes related to diversity. Fannie Mae, headed by African American Chief Executive Officer Franklin Raines, offers an annual women-of-color conference and allows all employees to test out other positions to expand their experience. In response to generally low numbers of women of color employed in technology, IBM has established a four-point strategy of recruiting, developing, mentoring and networking in order to fully support all its employees. Largely because IBM recruits globally, focuses on advancing women of color into executive positions and matches senior executives with new employees, IBM reports the number of female executives of color in the company has grown from 17 in 1995 to 74 today.

Exodus of Women from Corporate World

This list also comes at a time when Kirschenbaum says women of all backgrounds are in mass exodus from the corporate sphere and companies are recognizing the need for policies that support all kinds of women.

“Women are leaving the corporate world in droves because it’s tough out there,” Kirschenbaum said. “They’re not able to pursue their goals and they’re not getting the advancement they deserve. That’s something that cuts across race and ethnicity.”

With corporate America proving to be a tough place for all women, regardless of race or ethnicity, Kirschenbaum sees the creation of this list as benefiting all working women. “There may be separate issues that women of color face in their jobs, but there are also a lot of shared experiences,” she said. “Creating an alliance in the workplace is going to help everybody.”

Kirschenbaum says she hopes the list will not only shed light on various issues surrounding women of color in the workplace, but will foster competition among companies to make their organization the most appealing to prospective employees.

“Making the list says a lot about how a company treats their employees,” Kirschenbaum said. “And when you’re trying to recruit and retain employees . . . it’s very helpful to know what other companies are doing and what the standard is,” she added. “We hope to set that standard with our new list.”

As more and more women of all colors enroll in college, graduate schools and professional programs, there is an increasing interest among employers in making the most of this trend.

“The talent pool in the next twenty years is going to look very different from the one twenty years back,” Kirschenbaum said. “Companies must know how to take advantage of that.”

Jill Filipovic is a Women’s eNews correspondent in New York.

For more information:

Working Mother Magazine:
“The Best Companies for Women of Color 2003”: