Leveling the Playing Field for the American Dream

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This year marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed more than 200,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial, speaking of the Declaration of Independence and its promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all men.

In light of this anniversary, I have been giving thought to the development of equality and justice in the United States, whether in regards to race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. However, even since the March on Washington, several blaring disparities within these issues still exist today.

The iconic American dream that Dr. King painted that day was one of freedom, justice and equal job opportunities. He hoped this dream would be inclusive for all Americans, no matter the color of their skin. This is the same American dream that people today continue to strive for, supposedly achieved by simply “picking yourself up by the bootstraps.” The individualistic culture of the U.S. has branded that dream as a solitary struggle and has affected who can even afford to reach for this dream.

It’s no secret that a significant pile of change is held in the pockets of corporate leadership at Fortune 500 companies, not to mention the social influence and political power that comes with those elite positions.

Some of the highest paid CEOs in the U.S. come from companies such as Oracle, Walt Disney, Viacom and Starbucks, earning between $28 and $96 million last year. The average salary for CEOs adds up to about 354 times the annual pay of average U.S. employees — not to mention, a rate well ahead of the rest of the world — according to the deputy director of the office of investment at the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization Brandon Rees.

If you look at who’s at the top of the executive ladder, you’ll find a predominantly white male power structure. According to the research and consulting firm DiversityInc, which tracks the progress of people of color at U.S. companies, among the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in 2012, only six were African-American, six were Latino and nine were Asian-American.

This statistic reveals that only 4.4 percent of CEOs are people of color. According to CNN, currently in 2013 there are 22 women CEOs. The rest of the 500 companies are led by white, heterosexual males.

Money is concentrated at the top of these companies, so the question is: why aren’t more people of color, women and non-heterosexual-identifying individuals there?

There is a legacy of institutional injustice and systemic inequities that people of color, women and non-heterosexual-identifying individuals have experienced and continue to experience in all parts of the country.

Whether it be educational inequity in lower-income communities, unequal economic opportunities or simply not fitting the image of a “powerful, strong leader” that our society has been accustomed to, these challenges put women, people of color and non-heterosexual-identifying people at a disadvantage in the journey to corporate leadership.

I can only speak for myself, but as a woman, a Latina and a first-generation student, there are few role models for me to look up to at the top of the corporate ladder. There is currently not one Latina Fortune 500 CEO.

The solutions to diversifying leadership are not what people may call “token hires,” or hiring based on ethnicity. There also isn’t just one solution. Rather, this is a call to level the playing field — finding methods of empowering talented students and professionals of color, women and non-heterosexual-identifying individuals to believe in themselves and their capabilities.

Sometimes just seeing that someone like you is at the top makes a difference. This encouragement, combined with offering people the resources to reach their full potential, could change how these subordinated groups access leadership roles.

Corporate leadership is not an innate gift or a special talent. It’s the result of education, access to resources, leadership opportunities and the social expectations that are internalized from formative years. Educational equity across the U.S. is the first step in creating equal opportunity for college admissions and professional occupations.

There needs to be a push for improvements within the public education system and an increase of funding for more teachers, resources and advisors for middle and high school students, especially in low income communities. State governments must develop and support outreach programs so all qualified students have the chance at attending top-tier universities, despite economic constraints.

Universities need to prioritize tutoring resources, cultural programming and resource centers to promote retention and graduation. Corporations should provide professional and leadership development of their employees and create positions for career mobility within their organization.

These proposed steps may sound unrealistic, but these are a few real examples that institutions can take toward making professional occupations more inclusive. The American dream can become a reality not just for people who “look” like CEOs, but for anyone who has an equal opportunity to reach their full potential.