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Dreamforce 2021 – how to get ahead as a Black woman leader

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett September 24, 2021
Tips from three women leaders who have broken the glass ceiling and still face huge obstacles.

black woman leader

Black women are still hugely underrepresented in the technology sector and at leadership level -  Black women CEOs are at the helm of just one percent of Fortune 500 companies.

At the annual Salesforce Dreamforce event, three Black women leaders sat down to discuss their pathways to success, sharing insights into the personal struggles they had faced, and still face Black women trying to progress today.

One of the key obstacles black women face, the panellists agreed, is having to work ten times as hard to earn respect and trust when in a leadership position. For San Francisco Mayor London Breed, she learnt quickly that as a Black woman in leadership and in politics, there's a different set of expectations of African-Americans, especially women, than there are of other people:

Oftentimes I've seen people who have been Mayors in the past not necessarily make sometimes as good a decision as I've made being Mayor, but also get credit for things that aren't even that significant.

It's tough because you have a lot of weight on your shoulders. You have a lot of people depending on you, and more than just being a person on your own, you’re in leadership, you're a Black woman. And that means a lot when you're representing folks.

While only six percent of the San Francisco population are African-American, they account for almost 40% of the homeless and are disproportionately overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Breed, who was born and raised in poverty in San Francisco in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, explained that this really bothers her and she wants to make meaningful change – but it’s not something that is always welcomed:

When I diverted $120 million from our law enforcement agencies specifically to invest in the African-American community, it was perceived in the wrong way. It's not about defunding the police, it's not about trying to make a statement because of the racial uprising. It's because in my experience, everyone is outraged about what happens to Black people in this country. But when you make a decision to make change, that makes people uncomfortable. All of a sudden it's - wait a minute, we probably shouldn't do that. But if not this, then what; if not now, then when?

We have to start making real change, and what I am trying to do as Mayor is that change. It doesn't mean that I'm going to sacrifice one community over another. I'm just going to look at the data, I'm going to look at what happens. And I'm also going to look at my own experiences as a black woman who grew up in poverty, who grew up in this city and make decisions that I think are going to improve the lives of black people and those who are disenfranchised, which in essence improves the lives of people in our city and our society.

Journalist, author and Project Runway judge Elaine Welteroth was the first black beauty director at a Conde Nast publication, who then became editor in chief and the youngest person to hold that title. As a young black female leader, she experienced a lot of bewildering moments behind the scenes, and the double standards that often afflict women and Black women in leadership positions. Welteroth explained:

That’s particularly when you are a first. We love as a culture to celebrate a win for the culture, we rally behind these big announcements and appointments. But we rarely see into the cuts and bruises that are often a result of breaking through that proverbial glass ceiling.


One of the challenges Welteroth faced when getting promoted into her Editor-in-Chief position was on the one hand bringing a lot of value because of her identity, race and culture, and understanding of a different demographic - but then being subsequently discounted because of those same things:

I was the beauty director being promoted to the leader of the organization and was offered a $10,000 raise to do that job, which was needless to say a fraction of what any one in any editor-in-chief role had ever been offered to do the very same job. That's just one of a myriad challenges that I had to overcome, and I'm not alone. This is a universal experience. It's just not one that we often feel we have the agency or the safety of the space to talk about.

Having a space for black women to openly talk about these traumas and micro-aggressions is vital, according to Minda Harts, a Workplace & Equity consultant and author. In her 15 years holding down a 9-5 job, there wasn't a day that went by that Harts didn't experience racism:

Back then ,you were one of few or the only one and so you kept questioning, is this racism, am I crazy? Eventually that starts to impact your mental health and your wellbeing. Oftentimes when you do try to bring it to the forefront you're met with, 'No, that's just Bob being Bob' or 'That's not what it meant, you took it the wrong way'. So you're always dismissed.

There needs to be a space to talk about those things, and to make a workplace work for everybody, not just a select few, Harts added:

First we have to commit to ourselves and heal, but then also we need to hold our managers and leaders accountable to create psychological safety so that we can thrive and not just survive. It's no longer can we just throw this under the rug, we have to put it on top of the rug and handle it.

Another challenge for black women is getting access to leadership and the CEO, which is what helps grow a career and have success within the organization. Much of this relies on the individual seeking out advocates internally, building relationships and being self-motivated to create opportunities for mentorship and networking.

But Welteroth also advocates finding your tribe outside of the organization or corporate structure: identifying Black and Women of Color leaders, who are operating at high levels in other industries, and cultivating those relationships so you have them on speed dial:

That has been the saving grace to the wounds that are inevitable. And it's actually helped me strategize in my career beyond any sort of corporate initiative that has been put forth. That's not to say we don't need both. We do need more infrastructure, we do need this to be prioritized more within organizations, but I also think there's no substitute for cultivating your tribe and your safe spaces outside of the workplace as well.


For young people looking at advancing their careers in any capacity, in the political or corporate world, Breed said the most important thing is to trust yourself and know what you're capable of:

In politics, sadly, folks always think the worst of black people. I always get certain stigmas attached to me. As soon as something comes out, people assume the worst and all of a sudden I'm a criminal, I'm a crook, with no evidence to demonstrate that that's the case. But that's not always the case with people who are not African-American in politics.

Don't allow fear to enter into your thought process when making a decision. Had I allowed fear to consume me, I wouldn't have went to college, I wouldn't have run for office in the first place against all odds, I wouldn't have run for mayor.

To tackle these issues at a corporate level, Harts called for the introduction of legislation to ensure pay transparency and taking note of company ‘About us’ pages during the next recruitment round, which are primarily one particular demographic. She added:

Let's not move forward with another position and hire another white man or a woman, and look at have we made this position accessible to others. We really have to look at the policies and procedures to really move the needle forward.

And it has to be demonstrated, because if I'm a black woman working at a company and I keep hearing my leader say 'diversity, diversity, diversity' and I never see that represented, then I'm going to leave and then you're really going to have a pipeline problem.

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