Corporate boards of directors play a critical role in America’s economy, and who’s on them matters. By and large, White men still run big business and big business runs America.
Although corporate America is responding to demands to improve board diversity, companies still have work to do. Greenlining’s new Corporate Board Diversity brief evaluates 59 boards across leading industries – national companies with a major presence here in California. Our analysis found that they fail to mirror the state’s incredibly diverse labor force. Women and people of color each made up about one in four board members, even though women make up 46 percent and people of color are 60 percent of California’s labor force. Seven companies, including Amazon, had all White board members. More than half had less than 25 percent people of color. Three companies, including insurance giant GEICO, had no women board members, while 24 companies had less than 25 percent.
Boards of directors serve as top-level decision makers, whose responsibilities include approving company strategy, hiring CEOs, overseeing legal compliance, protecting the company’s reputation and fiduciary oversight. Gender and racially diverse boards offer women and people of color lucrative economic opportunity and influence in American life. In turn, board members of color and women board members can influence opportunities for women and communities of color. For example, Bruce S. Gordon, a CBS board member and former NAACP president, provided quick assistance to Black New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina by leveraging his board influence and corporate connections.
Some have argued that diversity other than racial, ethnic or gender -- like ideological diversity --is more relevant. For example, Apple’s former VP of Diversity, Denise Young, stepped down last November after only six months on the job amidst an outcry regarding her comment that a room of "12 white, blue-eyed, blonde men" could be diverse. And after acknowledging the ousting of Omarosa Manigault Newman and amidst questions about the Trump administration’s lack of staff diversity, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that the administration is diverse -- even though 71 percent of cabinet members are white, and, by the middle of last yearwhites held 88 percent of 1000 mid-level political positions, and men had 67 percent of those positions.
Apparently, the Trump White House holds the same view of diversity as Denise Young.
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Calling a board of 12 blue-eyed, white men diverse ignores a central goal of the diversity movement, to promote equitable access to economic opportunity for those who have been historically shut out. Twelve White male board members likely have never been racially profiled or denied a job because of their race. As a result, they likely won’t even see what elements of their company culture and policies make women and people of color people feel marginalized or left out.
Consider Harvey Weinstein’s highly publicized sexual harassment and assault allegations. The question of 2017 was, “Would Weinstein have gotten away with his behavior for decades if The Weinstein Company didn’t have an all-male board of directors?” At this influential company, the glass ceiling was very much intact, particularly for the women who were forced to make a choice between career opportunities and their own victimization.
All-male or all-White boards are no longer acceptable and should inspire a push for change. People of color, women, and other marginalized communities cannot secure broader economic inclusion unless leadership positions set a clear tone that it’s important, and there’s no better way to achieve that clear tone than to have racially and gender diverse leadership.
While corporations have become increasingly diverse, they still have more work to do -- not because of evidence that it will increase profitability (though it probably will), but, justice, fairness and simple decency demand it.