It is astounding to see so many companies taking stands against racism. But mea culpas will ring hollow if they are not followed by real action. Progress to date has been slow and inconsistent. In 2002, 12 Fortune 500 company CEOs were Black. Today, that number is four, and all of them are men.
Many leaders are at a loss about what they can do personally to move the needle on such dismal numbers — not only at the top, but throughout their organizations. They’d like to be what’s sometimes called an “ally.” The problem is that a lot of supposed allyship can just be performative: It sounds nice but impedes real action on racial and gender justice. The answer comes in two parts: stepping aside and stepping in front.
Despite a decade of efforts, women and racial minorities are still underrepresented on corporate boards. There are even fewer in the C-suite. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women represent 27.6 percent of all CEOs (though that is only 7 percent for the largest corporations) while Black people represent only 4 percent. The numbers are similarly low for Asian and Latinx people. None of these statistics are reported intersectionally, so we do not know how many Black women are in these roles.
Why so low? The answer is partly that male incumbents are reluctant to give up their seats. For example, while most governance experts recommend a six-year tenure (two three-year terms) for board members, the average tenure for male directors is over nine years (it’s only six for women). The only way that is going to change is if people holding top roles step aside, and they should be required to have a succession plan that includes people of diverse genders and races.
Alexis Ohanian — husband of Serena Williams — stepped aside when he ceded his seat on the board of Reddit, the company he founded, to a Black person. Are you ready to retire or move into an advisory role to make room for someone else — and if not, are there other ways you could pass the mic? The next time you’re invited to speak on a panel, think of someone else from an underrepresented community who could fill your shoes and enthusiastically endorse them to the event organizers.
This is not just a board issue. Men at all levels of the organization need to play a role. When it comes to allocating profitable clients, for example, recommend a woman of color for the next plum assignment rather than keeping it for yourself.
We recognize this requires a change in mindset. One in four men in the U.S. believe that women’s progress toward equality has come at the expense of men. Another survey found that over a third of respondents felt diversity initiatives meant that white men were being overlooked for promotions. These fears are overblown — men and white people are still overrepresented in the halls of power. But it is true that there are a limited number of seats at the table, and some positions will have to be vacated in order to increase representation of those who’ve been unfairly excluded in the past.
Step in front
Stepping in front means taking the heat for tough decisions to create equal opportunities. Promote a woman of color (or other underrepresented person) into a role that she would be well-suited for but for which she may be missing one skill. Put your reputation on the line for championing her for the role. Devote extra time to mentor her and make sure she develops the skill she needs.
Take the same approach to hiring. One of the excuses people often make for not increasing diversity among new hires is that there were no candidates that had the particular skills required. Instead of giving up in the quest for diversity, invest in more training so employees can develop those skills. You aren’t providing special treatment or exceptions to underrepresented people — the evidence shows that women and ethnic minorities are typically promoted on performance, while white men are promoted based on their potential. So you’re just leveling the playing field.
Refuse to proceed with recruiting or advancement decisions until there is a diverse slate. If the hiring manager claims there are no underrepresented minority candidates, change the job description so it attracts a more diverse group of people. Stick to your guns, even if it slows down the process for filling a position. Make promotions contingent on a leader having groomed a diverse group of successors.
It may be tempting for some leaders to think that change can come without personal cost. Most people in senior leadership have worked hard to get where they are and feel they deserve the rewards that come with that. But real change will only happen when corporate leaders acknowledge the tailwinds that they’ve benefited from and find ways to step aside for others who’d like to be relieved of the headwinds they face. You’re not really being an ally to anyone if it doesn’t cost you anything.
Laura Morgan Roberts is a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the co-editor of ‘Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience.’