With an African-American in the nation's top job, how will Barack Obama's election influence hiring across the U.S.?

Tribune reporter

Even as proponents of workplace diversity cheered Barack Obama's presidential election, they sounded a note of caution on how to interpret the victory and use it to their advantage. They want to give his victory its due without portraying the accomplishment as an anomaly.

Moreover, they feel they still need to call attention to the complex institutional and societal barriers that have kept minorities from moving into executive suites and boardrooms in greater numbers.

"What we need to do is step back and not confuse the accomplishments of one individual with an entire societal shift," said Gloria Castillo, president of Chicago United, a corporate membership organization and advocacy group. She takes issue with the notion that with Obama's election the U.S. has closed the door on its long struggle for racial equality.

"The victory ... of Barack Obama didn't change high school graduation rates," Castillo said. "It didn't change the fact that there's an under-representation of minorities in senior management, the pipeline to senior management and boards of directors."

Still, Obama's visibility on the national and world stage is an important step toward changing perceptions and cementing the idea that it's normal to have minority leaders, said Luke Visconti, partner and co-founder of DiversityInc., which publishes a magazine on workplace diversity.

"Our dominant sense is vision, so we gravitate to what we see," Visconti said. "As we become very used to an authority figure who's black, we're going to be much more comfortable with authority figures who are black. The threshold will have dropped."

Visconti called this overcoming "the expectation of the exceptional," and cited public officials such as Condoleezza Rice as an example. He even credited former Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales, who resigned from the Bush administration amid scandal, for showing, as Visconti put it, that minority leaders can be "people who are geniuses and people who are screw-ups, like everyone else."

By DiversityInc.'s count, 19 companies in the Fortune 500 have non-white chief executives, up from 14 at this time last year, despite recent departures of minority CEOs that include Stan O'Neal at Merrill Lynch & Co., Richard Parsons at Time Warner and Aylwin Lewis at Sears Holdings Corp.

And Obama's victory offers inspiration.

Ruby Butler, 20, broke into tears Tuesday night and hugged her mother when the screen at Grant Park flashed the news that a person of color had won the presidency.

"It's inspiring to see Barack Obama, the first African-American president," said Butler, a Columbia College junior who aspires to run her own television production studio. "If he can be the leader of our country, I can be the leader of a corporation. What's going to hold me back?"

Only 10 feet from the stage was Linda Johnson Rice, who sits atop the corporate ladder as chief executive of the family-owned Chicago company that publishes Ebony and Jet magazines. Both Butler and Johnson Rice felt energized by Obama's victory and see his election as a catalyst for making the workplace more diverse.

"This should be an example that there are more of us out there that can rise up," Johnson Rice said. "It's also important for CEOs of major corporations that it's got to start at the top and they've got to be able to drive that diversity initiative."

Having a competent leader in Obama might also chip away at the dominance of what Katherine Phillips, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, has identified as the "white standard."

Her research has found that people, no matter what their race, tend to see white business leaders as more effective than minorities. As a result, minorities who perform well are given less credit than their white counterparts. When applied to the presidency, the white standard is "this expectation that this is a position in some way reserved for white men or more befitting of white men than others," Phillips said.

Observers say the leadership qualities credited to Obama during his campaign are the same attributes needed for running a business: discipline, consistency, picking smart advisers and the ability to listen to multiple viewpoints.

"The role modeling is just going to be tremendous," said Carl Brooks, president and CEO of the Executive Leadership Council, an organization of black corporate executives. Brooks sees one of the key messages from Obama's victory as, "If you prepare yourself and you compete in a good way, you have an opportunity to really get rewarded and get recognized for your accomplishment."

Jermaine Pearson, a 24-year-old college senior from Chicago, said Obama's victory is a further reminder that he has to keep working hard. He's held jobs in offices where he was the only African-American male. Pearson said his experiences haven't been negative, but that he strives to make sure he's always "on his 'A' game."

"I do believe that with Barack Obama winning the presidency, the expectations for African-Americans, especially males, is going to be much higher. I do think he has raised the bar."


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