Somebody alert the World Wildlife Fund – apparently there’s a new endangered species: white men in business. This week, John Allan, the chairman of Tesco, told a conference that so strongly were women and ethnic minorities encroaching on white men’s jobs that very soon men like him would be “an endangered species”. Unsurprisingly to everyone except Allan, who’s clearly never been near Twitter, his comments caused uproar and there are now calls to boycott Tesco. Meanwhile, in boardrooms across the land, white men are shaking their heads and moaning that he was only joking and they don’t know what everyone has got so upset about.
What they’ve missed however is this: the joke simply isn’t funny. Of course, white men not being funny isn’t a reason to boycott something, otherwise Mock The Week would have been cancelled years ago, but when it’s both unfunny and wrong, we need to point it out. Allan’s comment was made during a speech to aspiring non-executive directors and I can see why he is confused about its reaction. He thinks he was being encouraging, telling the audience that previously it had been white men with the advantage and now it was women and ethnic minorities. But all that those women and ethnic minorities had to do is google the make-up of an FTSE 100 board to see that his words simply aren’t true.
The reality is that, if you’re not a white man, you have to work twice as hard to be seen as half as good
Speaking to The Guardian about his comments, Allan said that the audience had laughed – he thought they’d taken them in the spirit in which they were meant. I hate to disillusion you, John, but women have been fake-laughing at men’s jokes for millennia. There’s no greater moment of understanding between two women then when they catch each other’s eye while listening to a man spout off on something he knows nothing about. And, clearly, Allan hasn’t checked his facts because, while he might be seeing the death of the white man, the figures don’t back him up.
There are more men called John (like John Allan, for example) on the boards of FTSE 100 companies than there are women. And the situation isn’t getting any better. After years of campaigning and a government-backed report, the number of women on boards grew from 12 per cent in 2011 to 26 per cent in 2015, and it’s stayed there ever since, with no sign of it increasing. Also, this number focuses on non-executive directors – essentially, advisors who sit on a company’s board, but have little say in the day-to-day running of it. The people running the company are the executive committee – here, women number less than 10 per cent.
The situation is no better for ethnic minorities. Despite making up 14 per cent of the UK workforce, just eight per cent of board positions are held by non-white directors. This lack of representation means the upper echelons of British business fails to represent its employees or its customers, and yet no action seems to be happening to change it.
If you talk to corporates, they’ll tell you they are doing everything they can to get more women and non-white people into senior positions. Most will tell you that, when a directorship becomes available, they demand that they have at least one woman on the candidate shortlist for it; the most forward-thinking will ask for a 50/50 shortlist. And yet, when it comes to appointing the role, again and again it goes to a white man.
So, while John Allan thinks he was making a joke, this consistent bias against anyone who doesn’t look like the majority is just downright depressing. He’s also failed to see that comments like this just endorse the view that women and ethnic minorities don’t deserve these roles, that we’ve been given them because of our physicality, rather than our brains. The reality is that, if you’re not a white man, you have to work twice as hard to be seen as half as good. The women and ethnic minorities that do make it to a board aren’t there because of political correctness – they’re there because of their ability. If only we could say the same of all the white men.