As a business consultant, Pat Battle enters countless corporate offices around the world and sees the same thing nearly every time.
"It's guys in ties, white guys in ties," said Ms. Battle, who is based in Baltimore. "I don't know why, but every time, I'm still surprised."
Which is precisely why she's not surprised by the results issued last week of the federal government's first major study on the "glass ceiling." This invisible but very real barrier, the Labor Department found, has kept many minorities and women off the highest rungs of the corporate ladder.
In the executive ranks of the nine Fortune 500 companies surveyed, only 2.6 percent were minorities and 6.6 percent were women. Among managers, 6 percent were minorities and 16.9 percent were women.
A similar study of local companies, due to be completed next month, found an even grimmer picture for minorities in the Baltimore metropolitan area, according to Dan Henson, a Baltimore executive and a member of the Investing in Baltimore Committee, a group of black professionals that commissioned the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies to do the study.
"You can say these Fortune 500 companies surveyed [by the Labor Department] are among the best performers," said Mr. Henson, a partner and vice president at Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse. "You can go through whole floors of executive suites in Baltimore and never see a black."
That's familiar news to several female and minority business people in the Baltimore area who were interviewed. They expressed little surprise over the federal "glass ceiling" study, saying they've personally bumped up against one.
"I started getting those messages, 'Gee, I don't think you're quite ready, you need seasoning,' " said Carole Lyles, a black woman with an MBA from Columbia University and 15 years of experience in the human resources field when she left a bank credit card division two years ago. "And the more I looked around, the more I saw this happening to my peers, other black managers."
Just as Ms. Lyles, who had reached the vice president level, was becoming frustrated at her seemingly stalled career, Johns Hopkins University recruited her to direct a post-graduate program designed to help minorities overcome that very problem. The Hopkins Leadership Development Program, now starting its second year, is a nine-month, 15-credit course for minority professionals that many use toward getting a master's degree and perhaps further advancement at their companies.
Most of the students -- 20 completed the course the first year and about 16 have been accepted so far for the coming academic year -- are just below the vice president level of their companies, Ms. Lyles said, and find that they share similar experiences in trying to advance.
Those experiences, as well as the new Labor Department report, she said, show that the glass ceiling is not just the "paranoid grumblings of a few people."
"I hope that the report will wake corporations up and really alert them that the practices that they view as neutral on their face really have a chilling effect on people's careers," Ms. Lyles said.
However, she and other black professionals say they think corporate America is changing, although slowly.
"I don't think there's any company that's the perfect mecca for women and minorities," said Cheryl Hudgins, information systems manager at Procter & Gamble in Baltimore, which paid for her to attend the Hopkins program. "But my company has always been very supportive and allowed me to go to programs like this as an opportunity to develop skills that I don't have."
Ms. Hudgins said she hasn't hit a glass ceiling, but added that she isn't high enough yet in the company for that to be a factor. She is 28 and has been with the company since graduating from college six years ago.
jTC One potential reason for the glass ceiling, the labor report found, is thatcorporations tend to direct women and minorities toward human resources and public relations jobs, rather than the faster-track areas that are more likely to lead to high executive positions.
That is what Mr. Henson, of Struever Brothers, says he's spent his entire career "ducking."
"Most companies 'niche' black executives," Mr. Henson said. "At the point at which you should find an executive at the prime of career, they're instead in these niche jobs. They're off to the side somewhere . . . with zero budget, zero employees, zero power."
Mr. Henson found himself in a niche -- he ran the federal Minority Business Development Agency during the Carter administration -- and noticed that, unlike colleagues elsewhere in the Commerce Department, he never got the big job offers as a chief executive with a private company or trade association.