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CHICAGO - 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.

Where are the minorities?

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."

Changing perceptions

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 Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who resigned from the Bush administration amid scandal, for showing 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 on election night and hugged her mother when the screen at Chicago's 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 a more diverse place.

"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."

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