Kevin Woodson, “The Black Ceiling: How Race Still Matters in the Elite Workplace” (U Chicago Press, 2023)

America’s elite law firms, investment banks, and management consulting firms are known for grueling hours, low odds of promotion, and personnel practices that push out any employees who don’t advance. While most people who begin their careers in these institutions leave within several years, work there is especially difficult for Black professionals, who exit more quickly and receive far fewer promotions than their White counterparts, hitting a “Black ceiling.”

Sociologist and law professor Kevin Woodson knows firsthand what life at a top law firm feels like as a Black man. Examining the experiences of more than one hundred Black professionals at prestigious firms, Woodson discovers that their biggest obstacle in the workplace isn’t explicit bias but racial discomfort, or the unease Black employees feel in workplaces that are steeped in Whiteness. He identifies two types of racial discomfort: social alienation, the isolation stemming from the cultural exclusion Black professionals experience in White spaces, and stigma anxiety, the trepidation they feel over the risk of discriminatory treatment. While racial discomfort is caused by America’s segregated social structures, it can exist even in the absence of racial discrimination, which highlights the inadequacy of the unconscious bias training now prevalent in corporate workplaces. Firms must do more than prevent discrimination, Woodson explains, outlining the steps that firms and Black professionals can take to ease racial discomfort.

Offering a new perspective on a pressing social issue, The Black Ceiling: How Race Still Matters in the Elite Workplace (U Chicago Press, 2023) is a vital resource for leaders at preeminent firms, Black professionals and students, managers within mostly White organizations, and anyone committed to cultivating diverse workplaces.

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