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Beyond The "Corporate Ghetto" :Breaking Through Invisible Walls In The Workplace

I have an HR background spanning over two decades and have had several "good" jobs in Corporate America, Government, and other workplaces before transitioning to independent consulting. Being in this field for so long, including recruiting and staffing roles, I have seen many career trajectories up close and personal - success stories and tragedies alike.

I have also noticed certain scenarios that women, particularly women of color, don’t always notice. We are in fact breaking many “Glass Ceilings” and should be proud of that, but we don’t always realize that there are Invisible Walls that continue to limit us, especially if we seek C-Suite positions in Corporate America.

In the book "Work Sister Work," authors Cydney and Leslie Shields coined the term "Corporate Ghetto" to describe the areas where women of color are most likely to be allowed some room for advancement compared to other parts of an organization. We are often placed in Cost Centers instead of Profit Centers, but many CEOs are chosen from Profit Centers such as Sales. We are permitted and even steered to be in accounting, human resources, or administration in positions that prepare us to organize and maintain operations but not show how we can be strategic and can generate profitability and growth in leading an organization.

The path to CEO starts with even the most entry-level position. That first position, even if it’s an internship, can set the stage for an entire career. If one person takes a sales internship while their peer lands in a Human Resources Internship, it will likely be the sales Intern who is introduced to the most powerful people in their industry and see each success being widely celebrated across the organization. Yes, both have the opportunity to advance, but it is the employee who lands profitable contracts that will become a companywide hero, not the employee who recruited and hired employees like that. Back-office functions are as critical to an organization as any other positions. However, the people performing these functions are often overlooked for C-Suite positions. In some cases, they may be equally capable of performing top leadership roles, but traditionally their contributions are perceived as more transactional than strategic and profitable. Those on career paths such as sales are perceived as the Rainmakers in an organization, which translates to being perceived as “leadership material.”

Women in many organizations can often be found in some departments where they are the majority. Human Resources, Administration, Marketing, and Customer Service are overwhelmingly female at every level from intern through Director, giving the false illusion of fully equal opportunity. When women are represented in Sales, they are frequently assigned to territories such as Urban markets or Female customers. While every success matters, there is still work to be done.

New Options

Now that we know some common paths to the C-Suite, it’s up to women to pursue positions outside of our traditional comfort zones and ensure that we are represented in all departments of an organization, including sales and operations. We need to be just as influential as our male counterparts when it comes to boosting our organization’s brand and improving the bottom line.

Workplace bias is still a current challenge, but success is the best revenge, and at the end of the day profitability can make a statement that an employer hears loud and clear. There is no shame in holding any of the positions that have been traditionally female-dominated. We are able to bring value to all that we do. At the same time, we need to overcome our own collective hesitation to go beyond our norms and outside of the lanes defined for us. As some of us are making upward moves to shatter Glass Ceilings. Others need to be breaking through the invisible walls that keep us in “our lanes.” It’s time to challenge what it means to stay “in our lane” and remind the world that EVERY lane is ours!

Closing Thoughts

There will always be some among us (myself included) who enjoy the back-office or administrative work and gravitate towards human resources, marketing, or other traditionally “female” roles. However, it’s important that we leave our stamp across ALL areas of an organization.

As we start to shift cultural norms through our mere presence. Barriers will start to be broken while ceilings continue to be destroyed. The “Corporate Ghetto” will ideally begin to fade away in favor of a more equitable workplace.

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