Xerox first large U.S. company to appoint black woman as CEO

Ursula Burns also first woman to take the executive reins from another woman

Photocopier giant Xerox has broken new ground with the appointment of its latest CEO Ursula Burns.

Burns is the first African American woman to lead a major corporation in the United States. The mother of two is also the first woman to take the reins of a corporation from another woman.

Burns joined Xerox as a summer intern in 1980 and became a permanent employee after completing her master's degree in engineering a year later. Over the years, she climbed the ranks of the Norwalk, Conn.-based company, becoming general manager in 1997 and vice-president of worldwide manufacturing in 1999.

In 2007, six years after Anne Mulcahy became CEO, Mulcahy named Burns as president.

While women make up 59.6 per cent of the U.S. labour force, fewer than 16 per cent of top corporate officers are female, according to Catalyst, a New York-based advocacy group for the advancement of women.

The figures are even worse for minorities. Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon, became the first non-white woman to lead a major company in 1999. By 2007, there were seven black men running major corporations but since then, three have left.

But the diversity numbers are much better at Xerox, which was one of the first company to embrace workplace diversity as far back as the 1960s when it instituted employee affinity networks. Now, one-third of the company's 3,819 executives are women and 22 per cent are minorities.

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