A lot of business leaders talk a big game about their commitment to diversity, while making very little progress in actually adding people of color to their boards and C-suites.
If they’re truly stymied about how to make the ranks of power less white, perhaps they should consider resigning.
That’s the path being taken by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who announced Friday that he is stepping down from the Reddit board and requesting that he be replaced by a Black person. “I believe resignation can actually be an act of leadership from people in power right now,” he wrote on his personal website. “To everyone fighting to fix our broken nation: do not stop.”
Ohanian, who is co-founder of the early-stage VC fund Initialized, the husband of tennis superstar Serena Williams, and a proud dadfluencer, said he was motivated to act “as a father who needs to be able to answer his Black daughter when she asks: ‘What did you do?'” He also pledged to use profits from his Reddit stock to serve the Black community, beginning with a $1 million donation to Know Your Rights Camp, the racial-justice nonprofit founded by football quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Protests across the US in the wake of police brutality against Black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are forcing many companies and executives to confront the ways that institutionalized racism plays out at their own organizations, and to reflect on what action they can take to fix it.
Giving up a seat of power in order to make room for a member of an underrepresented community certainly isn’t the only way to create a more diverse workforce or leadership team and combat inequality. But Ohanian’s decision is intriguing—and it raises the question of whether other influential people would, could, or should follow his lead.
Why diverse boards matter
Among Fortune 100 companies, just 16% of positions in the C-suite are held by non-white executives, and 26 companies have no racial diversity at this level, according to a 2020 paper (pdf) from Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance.
A lack of diversity at the top makes companies less productive, less innovative, and less profitable—not to mention far worse places to work. It also has far-reaching ramifications for consumers and society at large, as companies that don’t have racially diverse leaders are more likely to perpetuate racial inequality in ways large and small, as Reddit’s own history with bigotry illustrates.
Reddit, founded in 2005, has a lot of influence, with 430 million monthly active users on the social platform as of October 2019. It’s also consistently faced criticism for moderation policies that permit hate speech and thriving racist communities. Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, who attempted to reform the company’s anti-harassment policies during her tumultuous tenure there, said on Twitter this week that the company “nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long.”
Diversifying Reddit’s all-white board could help the company make headway in addressing these longstanding problems. As Keith Meyer, president of the nonprofit Directors Academy, which develops and places diverse board talent, told Quartz in 2019: “The CEO reports to the board. If the tone at the top isn’t being set by the board, more likely than not it’s not being set further down, and you won’t have the same message or delivery of what the company is about.”
Pao, for example, might have found more support for her efforts to combat harassment and discrimination on the platform if she had been reporting to a board with different demographics.
Giving up a seat at the table
A white man choosing to give up power isn’t something the world sees every day—much less doing so in order to create space for diverse voices.
Of course, it’s a lot easier to step down from an elevated position when you’re highly privileged, and your ability to persist in living a privileged life is more or less guaranteed. Ohanian, it should be noted, still has an investment fund, a very wealthy wife, and a public platform that ensures he will continue to be an influential person in the world, whether or not he’s on Reddit’s board.
There’s also the question of whether it’s more effective for people who want to be anti-racist allies to work to create change from within an organization, rather than leaving the organization entirely in the hopes that a member of an underrepresented group will take their place.
Ohianian says he has faith that the board will hire a replacement who is Black, and his position as a co-founder means he likely has good reason to believe in such an outcome. The average white male worker, however, probably can’t count on a hiring committee to prioritize candidates who are people of color if he leaves. And so such a gesture could risk making far less impact than his remaining at the company and pushing to create more opportunities for underrepresented people and a more inclusive culture.
But for people who are in positions of real power—those executives and board members who can exert influence over who fills their spot—Ohanian has presented a fairly daring way to make a impact.
There are also any number of ways that white business leaders can choose to step aside in the interests of giving a platform to people of color, without actually vacating their position—whether it’s a white CEO recommending that a Black executive lead an important presentation to investors, or a white expert in a particular subject declining an invitation to appear on a panel and suggesting a person of color who is just as qualified a speaker, if not more so, on the topic at hand.
In the big picture, Ohanian’s decision matters because it challenges all white people who claim to be invested in the cause of racial equality to consider the question of what they are willing to sacrifice in order to bring about a more just world. It’s an uncomfortable thing to think about. That’s exactly why every white person should.