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When the chairman of Tesco calls white males “an endangered species” on boards, it’s progress

Tesco shopping bags are carried in London,.
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
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Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

“If you are a white male—tough,” Tesco’s John Allan reportedly (paywall) told a group of aspiring corporate directors at a conference this week. “You are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.”

It was an impolitic comment, coming from the white, male chairman of the UK’s largest supermarket chain, which happens to have an all-white board with only three women on it. But champions of corporate diversity who look past their outrage will see good news in Allan’s statement.

Companies on both sides of the Atlantic have been talking for years about diversifying their senior ranks. Now, many are taking active steps to at least consider non-white-male candidates when it comes to filling big roles.

They’re not yet promoting enough women or people of color to move the needle much. Fewer than 5% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. That’s a shockingly low statistic, compared to the amount of lip service paid to diversity by Fortune 500 companies.

But boards are steadily (if slowly) diversifying. According to a 2016 study by Deloitte and The Alliance for Board Diversity, a record high of 30.8% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies are held by women or minorities, up from 26.7% in 2012, and 25.5% in 2010.

It’s a basic fact of math that as this percentage moves up, the percentage of white men on boards will fall. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of white men on Fortune 500 boards declined by 257 to 4,020, a 6.4% drop.

As a group, these men are far from endangered status—they still account for 69.2% of board positions at these firms. But if Allan is sensing an increased commitment by his company or others to look beyond white male candidates to fill board seats, that’s an indicator that the world may soon be enjoying more of the benefits that diverse boards provide.

Perhaps we are at the tipping point where years of debate and pledges and advocacy are finally adding up to something, the effects of which are now strong enough to be sensed by a privileged white man steering the board of a corporate giant. Even so, that doesn’t excuse the tactlessness of Allan’s “endangered species comment,” which is also something he should sense by now.

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