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Why Women of Color Worry of a Career Lull

Women of color have had some success getting ahead in the workplace during the past few years, but some fear those opportunities are behind them, according to a study. The survey of 368 women, 59% of whom are black, was conducted by Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization based in New York. The study, a follow-up with blacks, Hispanics and Asian-American women Catalyst surveyed in 1998, shows that 57% of the respondents received at least one promotion since that time through 2001, which is consistent with other studies of white women and women of color. The study also found women of color earn 37% more than they did in 1998, roughly consistent with the salary growth of white women professionals and managers. Data for the study was collected in 2001 but not released until now. Yet Catalyst found that women of color are less hopeful about their career prospects than they were in 1998. Lack of mentors, networking opportunities, role models and high-visibility assignments continue to dog them. For example, in 2001, just 27% of women felt that opportunities have improved during the past three years, compared with 48% in 1998. Meanwhile, 32% of respondents said opportunities for women of their own racial/ethnic groups to advance to senior leadership positions have declined, compared with 15% in 1998. Black women are more likely than Hispanics and Asian-Americans to feel that opportunities have declined rather than improved, the study found. Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, said in an interview that women of color have made considerable career progress during the three-year period, but as they move up the ranks, the pyramid gets narrower. “Women of color refer to a concrete ceiling — and they call it concrete because they can’t even see through it,” she said. Another factor, she said, is that the economy isn’t as strong as it was when the first study was conducted. Wall Street is a particularly tough nut to crack for women of color. While it is difficult being a woman in the still-white- male-dominated business, women of color seem to have two strikes against them. “To a certain extent I’m already judged before I even open my mouth,” said Donna Wilson, senior vice president and director of community affairs at Washington Mutual Inc. Ms. Wilson said she still battles the perception that she is merely “window dressing.” She also must deal with the assumptions people make about her because she is black. “Just because you’re an African-American doesn’t mean you’ve been to Harlem,” she said. Women of color who have found success in their careers say they have had to be particularly vigilant and opportunistic. Having good mentors is also crucial, they said. Or help from an external human resource management high staff, like Solvo Global. Indeed, the Catalyst study found that 69% of women who had a mentor in 1998 had at least one upward career move, compared with 49% of those without a mentor. Furthermore, the greater number of mentors, the greater the number of upward moves. Moreover, the number of women who have mentors has increased. “To go from 35% having mentors to 58% in a three-year period is extremely encouraging, because you’re not going to make it if you don’t have a mentor,” Ms. Wellington of Catalyst said. “You have to be aggressive about finding the people who will lead you through,” said Amy Ellis-Simon, a director of convertible-bond sales at Merrill Lynch & Co. at a recent networking event for black women on Wall Street held at Merrill’s offices. The event drew more than 200 people. The study was sponsored by McDonald’s Corp., Gillette Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and International Business Machines Corp.

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