I just wanted to follow up on Lisa’s previous post regarding what she sees as a potentially concerning trend for racial diversity in the boardroom as compared to gender diversity in the boardroom. This is an issue that arose in our interviews as well and I think it is safe to say that our respondents were more optimistic about the future of gender representation in the boardroom than about the future of racial diversity in the boardroom.
For example, as I noted in my previous post, almost all respondents said that board diversity was beneficial, and many expressed a desire to see more of it. But, when we asked why boards were not more diverse, the response almost always related to the talent pool. Many thought it was just a matter of time before more women and minorities gained sufficient experience at the appropriate corporate level to be qualified for and considered for board service, though a number considered the talent pool, or “pipeline,” deeper for women than for racial minorities. A white male respondent gave what seemed to be the standard explanation:
A: Well the easy answer is because there’s not enough qualified people, but I think that’s a copout. I think that a lot of work needs to be done in educating boards, and the CEOs to get on the ball here. It’s frustrating to me at times that more progress hasn’t been made in the forty years that I’ve been doing this, and I don’t have an excuse for it other than there’s not enough pressure, if that’s the right word, being placed on CEOs for upper level management considered female or minority. I think we’re getting a larger and larger pool of qualified talent every year. I mean it takes twenty to twenty-five years to get somebody to the level of experience of a [name of a white male director]. You don’t get that in five years, so it’s an ongoing process, and I would say probably we didn’t wake up until the eighties in getting people educated and into first-level management positions so that they could go further so I think maybe now we’re starting to see the results of that, and that’s why there’s more qualified people coming, but I don’t have any excuse for why there’s fifteen percent of the people on boards or management.
Several respondents contrasted the difficulties in identifying talented minority board candidates with the (relative) ease of identifying potential female candidates. One white female director acknowledged that this could be a function of her own and others' limited contacts:
A: I would say there are fewer salient racial minority leaders who are brought to our attention, than women. And I’m not quite sure why that would be. But we had a harder time deepening our list of minority candidates than women, even though, in the end, I think we had some very strong minority representatives. So, it may be that there are just fewer people who come to mind, or it may be that as a woman I was more aware of the women I wanted to suggest.
This quote echoes a notable theme from our interviews – that who you know matters, and that women and minorities often lack the social networks that position white males as identifiable board candidates. For instance, a white male director reported:
A: There may be thousands of qualified women, but they’re not connected. They don’t belong to the New York Athletic Club or the Olympic Club in San Francisco, which is where those decisions get made unfortunately.
I’ll close with a final exchange that, in our view, exemplifies the fraught nature of discussions about gender and (especially) race in the boardroom. We discussed one board’s perceived need to diversify by adding an African American director. He began by stating that the board in question had made a “conscious decision” to seek an African American candidate. Yet even though race was a “big, big plus factor” only one of three finalists was African American—and “not because of color”:
Q: And was this a fairness or responsibility argument again that we need to have an African American on the board?
A: Well it was a conscious decision by the board that we felt given equal qualifications we would prefer to have a minority and specifically, if we could, an African American.
Q: And was that more just sort of, you felt it was the right thing to do or because of specific business imperatives?
A: No. It was the right thing to do.
Q: The right thing to do. Okay.
Q: Was the search limited by that as a factor or was it an open search with that as a big plus factor?
A: It was an open search with that as a big, big plus factor and we narrowed it down to ten people. I think half of them were African Americans and a couple of them were Hispanic. No. I shouldn’t say that. Three or four were African Americans, two or three were Hispanic. There was one Oriental and I think there were a couple of females. We interviewed the top five and [an African American male] came out on top. Incidentally, the number two person was a white male. The number three person in the whole thing was a female.
Q: So despite the strong plus for an African American candidate, really only one of the top three was an African American.
A: Only because of qualification and not because of color.
These quotes and others from our interview transcripts can be found here, for those that would like to read more.
The “What’s The Return On Equality?” Mini-Symposium: