We desperately need to talk about the lack of Black corporate leadership – diverse leadership as a whole, really.

The statistics surrounding Black representation within the C-Suite in both the UK and the US are disappointing at best – damning at worst.

As a Black recruiter and company director who specialises in placing people in leadership roles, this is something that touches me both personally and professionally.

So let’s explore the issue – first by understanding the state of play on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Statistics (US & UK)

UK Figures

Before we go any further, bear in mind that as of the 2021 UK census, ethnic minority individuals made up 17% of the UK population. 4% were Black.

One of the principal sources on minority ethnic leadership in the UK is The Parker Review. In its 2017 edition, it set a voluntary target for FTSE 100 companies: “At Least One by ‘21”; aiming to get at least one minority ethnic individual on every FTSE 100 board by 2021. This is a noble aim, and one that achieved great strides.

In 2016, when the review began, only 47 of the 100 companies in the FTSE 100 had at least one ethnic minority director. As of December 2022, possibly thanks in part to the At Least One by ‘21 initiative, that figure was up to 96.

This is incredible progress, though I worry that the target was a little unambitious. The FTSE 100 is comprised of 100 companies – that’s 100 boards who only need one minority ethnic individual present in order to achieve the intended goal. All in all, that’s just 100 jobs minimum. Needless to say, I will be watching their “One by 2024” target for FTSE 250 companies with great interest.

However, the Parker Review do seem to want to expand their reach, stating “We believe there is a compelling logic for setting targets for inclusion of ethnic minorities within large private companies – in addition to those set for listed [FTSE] companies”. The review also acknowledges that a cynical “one and done” approach within management alone is insufficient to tackle the full scope of the problem.

Yet in contrast to the hopeful tone of the Parker Review, UK consultancy Green Park shared some data that we feel better reflects the reality – and the gravity – of Black leadership in the UK. Forbes doesn’t pull any punches in their reporting: “There are no Black chairmen, chief executive officers or chief financial officers in any of Britain’s 100 largest companies, as represented by the FTSE 100 index.” Mic drop.

In a note that will undoubtedly strike some discord after reading the Parker figures, Green Park’s findings state that only 3.4% of the chair, CFO, CEO positions at FTSE 100s are held by ethnic minorities, the same level as in 2014, and the percentage of Black executive directors and NEDs has actually dropped slightly. The percentage of other minority groups in executive and non-executive director positions has slightly increased.

US Figures

The USA has a more racially diverse population than the UK, with 40.9% of the population self-identifying as a non-”White” race/ethnicity as of 2021. Black citizens made up 12.6% of the US population. And though the corporate leadership diversity statistics are a little more promising Stateside, they’re still far from ideal.

Since the first publication of the Fortune 500 list in 1955, there have only been 19 Black CEOs at companies in the list – contrast this with the fact that the list has seen 1,800 CEOs come and go in total. So that’s just 1% of the list’s total CEOs throughout its history.

As of September 2020, according to the Wall Street Journal, 466 Fortune 500 CEOs were White and only 5 were Black, with Black individuals accounting for just 1% of companies on the list at the time. This figure used to be fractionally higher, but has been trending down in the past decade.

If we home in on the 50 most valuable companies in the US, as of 2021, only 8% of their C-Suite execs were Black, according to the Washington Post. At least 8 companies had no Black individuals amongst their executive teams. In reporting on these figures, Forbes tweaks the term “glass ceiling” (that refers to the difficulty women have rising through the ranks) to one that is even harder to break through, faced by Black professionals: the “concrete ceiling”.

There are also some interesting observations about Black employees and leadership specifically in tech and cyber. The introduction to the Aspen Digital’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Cybersecurity report puts it quite bluntly:

                 

            […] current diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, however well-meaning, have not addressed the

overwhelming white-ness and male-ness of the cybersecurity field.”

According to the report, Black individuals are (marginally) the most represented in the cyber workforce, accounting for 9% of workers, but there’s still a long way to go to bring them up to parity with the general population. The Aspen Digital report also contains one point that I don’t want this article to be blind to in our focus on Black talent: though Hispanic/Latino individuals make up 18-19% of the US population, they only account for 4% of the cyber workforce.

According to Russel Reynolds Associates and Valence, 47% of Black professionals in tech “strongly agreed” that they need to switch between companies more regularly for career growth. Only 28% of non-Black respondents said the same. In an excellent article by Sarah K White for CIO (honestly, check it out, it’s a great read), she remarks:

“To advance their careers and earn more pay, Black talent in the tech industry move employers every 3.5 years on average, while their non-Black peers report switching jobs every 5.1 years on average. […] According to the [Russel Reynolds Associates and Valence] report, ‘on average, Black tech talent stays at each company for 2 years, while their non-Black peers stay for 4.5 years.’”

Sarah also lays out 6 core issues that Black tech talent faces: unfair treatment, lack of representation in leadership; lack of opportunities; apprenticeship disparities; spiralling standards and plunging ceilings; and outdated mindsets.

Though the plight of talented Black leaders is particularly notable on both sides of the pond, we need to note that it’s not the only struggle here. There are numerous intersectional factors at play.

For example, we see headlines like “The number of women running Fortune 500 companies reaches a record high”, only to be disappointed when we click through and see that this dizzying high is merely 44 female CEOs. 44 women in a sea of 500 people. Not even 10%. Record high, yes; progress, yes – but is it really happening at an acceptable pace?

Additionally, there are no publicly LGBTQ+ CEOs in the UK’s FTSE 100, and only 4 Fortune 500 CEOs are publicly LGTBQ+.

The Business Case for a Diverse Workforce

Advocating for more diversity in the workplace – especially in leadership – isn’t just a fair struggle for equity. Employers who don’t foster diversity and inclusion could be very literally throwing money away.

According to McKinsey research, companies with a more diverse workforce are more likely to financially outperform their peers. Forbes figures state that inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time, and that decisions made and executed by diverse teams delivered 60% better results than average.

The McGregor-Smith Review – a 2017 investigation into issues faced by ethnic minorities in the UK workplace – posited that the British economy could receive a £24 million boost if minority ethnic talent was fully utilised.

Also in 2017, Deloitte research found that up to 50% of customers made a purchasing decision in the previous 12 months because of an organisation’s support for equality.

Diversity actively brings people together who have different views on the world and different lived experiences – potentially leading to higher innovation and creativity. Increased intersectional diversity in the workplace, properly implemented, paves the way for increased employee satisfaction, stronger employee engagement, and even reduced turnover, especially amongst marginalised communities.

But this kind of diversity needs to become properly embedded into the fabric of a culture in order for it to start to pay dividends – and it needs to come from the top. As stated in the HBR, “Taking an ‘add diversity and stir’ approach, while business continues as usual, will not spur leaps in your firm’s effectiveness or financial performance.”

Delving into the Problem

Green Park chair and former head of the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips said that talented Black people did not stay at big firms as they felt they’d be used as “window dressing” – blaming cultures of typically white, male senior executives for this predicament.

These are strong words but they paint a sadly rather accurate picture of the state of play for Black professionals.

As a Black-owned and run business, Bestman Solutions often have frank conversations with minority ethnic applicants who have experienced so-called “subtle” discrimination – usually the kind that gets fully skilled, willing, and able individuals passed over for promotion in favour of a candidate that will support the board’s racial homogeneity.

Yet on the other hand, I’ve had HR managers and line managers tell me straight: we’re reaching out to you because we’d like a Black or minority ethnic leader for this role. Which is great to hear! It indicates that there’s an appetite for diversity that is being felt at management or board level. Cultural change is particularly effective when it’s sincere and it comes from an organisation’s upper echelons, though let’s not ignore the fact that everyone needs to be on the same page in order to make it a success.

However, when this request for a minority ethnic applicant comes from an organisation who I know has a patchy history with DE&I, I can’t help but question what is driving that appetite. Is this company sincerely looking to change? Or are they just looking for a melanin-rich mannequin for their window display? And should I, as a conscientious recruiter, condemn someone to that future?

There is a massive irony there – the company is saying “We realise there’s inequality in our firm because we haven’t had a Black person rise through the ranks naturally into this role. We’ve not given someone the chance to do that. But we want you to find someone who is Black and has done this before.” Such a person can be understandably hard to find.

And in the time it takes to find someone who fits the bill, the employer may well have filled that role with someone within the same homogeneous demographic pool. There’s a lack of much needed flexibility in the required experience for leaders because “that’s the way we’ve always recruited C-Suite execs”. But these demands write checks that the reality of Black corporate existence can’t cash.

As a recruiter who specialises in leadership roles, I’ve seen a lot of C-Suite job descriptions and advertisements. Many of them will have a very particular list of skills and experience that they require for the role – possibly including things like “board level experience,” “MD-stakeholder liaison”, and “committee chairing”. They want an “oven ready” candidate yet sadly, the number of Black candidates that have actually been able to achieve that kind of exposure is woefully minimal.

One chief concern of mine is that though there are countless companies who are approaching diversity and inclusion with good, egalitarian intentions, there are sadly many who do so as a hollow PR play. For a prime example, I’m acutely aware that this article was originally published in July – the month where the LGBTQIA+ Pride flags start being silently dropped from online corporate branding.

At the same time, Chief Diversity Officer roles, and even whole DE&I teams, are apparently drying up – something that’s hitting Black and minority ethnic workers the hardest and was particularly noticeable in the recent spate of tech layoffs. The above linked Essence article says it beautifully: “Tech’s broken promises validate Black skepticism [sic].”

It’s thoroughly disheartening to see that DE&I is seen as a “nice to have” rather than a true business benefit. It seems that when budgets get tight, diversity gets dropped.

Additionally, we’ve worked with minority ethnic applicants who have left an organisation because they weren’t getting anywhere – and in some cases, these individuals felt that their progression was being actively stifled. I’ve known quite a few Black individuals who have felt the need to strike out on their own and become a business owner in order to get where they feel they deserve to be. Yet business ownership can be a hard road too – regardless of race. Nobody should feel they have to leave the security and regularity of a job in their chosen field in order to feel professionally validated.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Alas this is an issue that doesn’t have a neat, tidy solution – otherwise we’d all probably have done it by now. A lot of the things I can suggest are either fraught with their own problems or are far easier said than done.

One possible approach that I’d like to explore, regardless of the kind of -ism or bias being fought, is to allow a certain “amnesty for ignorance”. In order to educate people throughout an organisation, there needs to be a freedom to identify discriminatory behaviour or processes; to call out microaggressions; bring them to the surface; and use them as teachable moments, free of judgement.

However, I recognise that this is still quite idealistic. In the moment, when a problematic view is being expressed, those perpetrating these injustices may not be in the right headspace to accept correction. Especially if the person being corrected is in a position of power over whoever’s doing the correcting; the aggressor may see attempts to call out their microaggressions as insubordination, possibly causing themselves and all such “correctors” professional harm.

Coming at it from the opposite angle, when someone expresses negative views about a marginalised group or groups that you identify with, stepping back, taking a deep breath, and being the one who has that tough conversation with them in a calm manner can be easier said than done.

But perhaps most importantly, it should not be the lot of female, non-White, LGBTQIA+, and disabled people to have to be a talking point every day, nor should they be burdened with the responsibility of advocating for everyone who shares elements of their identity.

This is perhaps where cultural change is most needed: where individuals from the more historically privileged groups – perhaps even the “vanilla boys’ club” themselves – need to be willing and able to identify and quash both subtle and overt discriminatory behaviour as it happens, and truly advocate for their more marginalised colleagues.

Companies need to work towards a culture where any kind of racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, and transphobic behaviour never goes unchecked. But the people perpetrating these behaviours also need to be on board with gradually opening their eyes to inclusivity. Sadly, in some corporate cultures, I think this is what’s going to be their biggest uphill struggle.

Achieving diversity is not a tick box exercise where you can say “We achieved ‘At Least One by ‘21!’” or “We had mandatory diversity training!” and consider diversity in an organisation done and dusted. Everyone needs to put in the work to make workplaces fairer and more inclusive.

Ultimately, skilled professionals all deserve a seat at the table – regardless of their protected characteristics. And we can all do our part in creating a world where the best person for the job is the one who gets it.

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