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You Can Still Count The Number Of Black CEOs On One Hand

People gather to memorialize the life of George Floyd on the first anniversary of his death on Tuesday in Atlanta. America's corporations pledged to boost diversity soon after his death last year, but progress can be slow.
People gather to memorialize the life of George Floyd on the first anniversary of his death on Tuesday in Atlanta. America's corporations pledged to boost diversity soon after his death last year, but progress can be slow.

When protests erupted after George Floyd's murder, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, a philanthropy focused on social justice and inequality, says he fielded phone calls from more than a dozen chief executives who were "disturbed and deeply concerned."

There was a lack of diversity among upper management and on the boards of directors, and many of these CEOs did not know how to respond.

"There was not both lived experience and expert knowledge to advise, and provide counsel and wisdom, to CEOs and the boards," Walker recalls.

One year later, there continues to be a glaring lack of representation in corporate America.

According to Equilar, a clearinghouse for corporate leadership data, 29.6% of companies on the S&P 500 do not have at least one Black board member. Today, there are five Black CEOs in the Fortune 500. When Ken Frazier retires from Merck next month, there will be four.

And addressing the long-standing lack of diversity in their own ranks continues to be a challenge for many of America's top companies, though it is one they are trying to address.

Procter & Gamble wants to achieve 13% representation of African American employees, which would put it just about in line with their representation in the U.S. population. Currently, it stands at 10%.

General Motors set up an "inclusion advisory board" chaired by CEO Mary Barra that meets four times a year. Starbucks hired former Attorney General Eric Holder for a third year to conduct what it calls a "civil rights assessment" of the company's policies.

And Facebook, which has no person of color among its seven most-senior executives, set a five-year goal to have 30% more Black leaders.

Meanwhile companies such as Microsoft have begun to tie hiring to executive compensation.

The commitments have been welcomed by those who promote more diversity, but there's also plenty of cautiousness.

"You can tell the difference between those who are sincere and genuine and authentic, and those who are basically being given a script by their communications departments," Walker says. What he is looking for is sustained seriousness and continued engagement.

Other activists worry that companies will simply pay lip service to diversity, for example, by just donating to racial equality initiatives.

"I think that, for most of these corporations, money is easy," says DeRay Mckesson, a founder of Campaign Zero, an organization focused on police reform. "The money is literally the least risky and easiest thing you can do."

Diversifying a workforce takes time and energy, experts warn.

Last week, Morgan Stanley promoted four men to senior leadership roles, who may now be in the running eventually to succeed current CEO James Gorman. He's white, and so are they.

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, Gorman reiterated his commitment to diversity, but he also acknowledged long-standing barriers to advancement. "This organization has been built over many decades, and it takes a long time for talent to rise to the top," he said.

In a statement, a Morgan Stanley spokesperson told NPR the company is "committed to developing and promoting diverse talent at all levels including the most senior levels at the firm."

The bank also notes that among the "potential candidates for more senior positions at the firm, including CEO," are "a breadth of well-qualified, diverse people on our operating committee, both women and people of color."

At the same hearing, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan highlighted his company's diversity data. The firm has succeeded in hiring more Black employees overall; 14% of its workers are Black.

But only 1 in 20 senior-level managers at Bank of America is Black, and that proportion has been the same for years.

One way to start is by boosting diversity in recruitment and retention, according to Ebony Thomas, an executive at Bank of America who wants to expand the pipeline her firm uses to hire talent.

A graduate of North Carolina A&T University, she has encouraged the bank to recruit more from historically Black colleges and universities such as the one she attended. That effort dovetails with Bank of America's philanthropic goals.

Last fall, it donated $1 million to her alma mater "to advance racial equality and economic opportunity."

Of course, recruiting diverse staff and promoting them takes years, and Thomas said it's important not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

"I mean, progress is progress, and it's slow," Thomas said. "But we still have to recognize progress."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.