Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian sparked a flurry of online comments on 5 June by resigning from the social network’s board and urging its remaining members to fill his seat with a black candidate.
Ohanian – the spouse of tennis legend Serena Williams – unveiled his decision in response to the Black Lives Matter protests that have unfolded across the world, following the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd during an arrest procedure.
In a threaded Twitter statement, Ohanian wrote: “I co-founded Reddit 15 years ago to help people find community and a sense of belonging. It is long overdue to do the right thing. I’m doing this for me, for my family, and for my country. I’m writing this as a father who needs to be able to answer his black daughter when she asks: ‘What did you do?’
“I have resigned as a member of the Reddit board, I have urged them to fill my seat with a black candidate, and I will use future gains on my Reddit stock to serve the black community, chiefly to curb racial hate, and I’m starting with a pledge of $1 million to Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp.” (Ohanian/Twitter, 5 June 2020)
He added: “I believe resignation can actually be an act of leadership from people in power right now.”
Just a few days later, Reddit announced that Ohanian's seat had indeed been filled by a black business leader – namely, Michael Siebel: CEO of US startup accelerator Y Combinator. (Reddit, 10 June 2020)
In an opinion column, US business consultant Seth Cohen noted that, prior to Ohanian’s resignation, Reddit’s board was all white, with only one female member. This, Cohen explained, was just part of a more widespread problem in US firms: “A recent study by the Alliance for Board Diversity, which advocates for greater diversity and inclusion in boardrooms, in partnership with professional services firm Deloitte, found that over 83% of all board positions in Fortune 500 companies where held by white people and only 8.6% of board positions were held by African American/black individuals, with additional 3.6% of board positions being held by Latinx leaders. The report also found that Asian/Pacific Islander individuals held 3.7% of the board positions.”
A year ago, Cohen pointed out, an Institutional Investor Services report on board diversity in the Russell 3,000 – an index of the largest, US-traded stocks, representing around 98% of all US incorporated equity securities – found that just 10% of the relevant firms’ directors belong to a minority-ethnic group. (Forbes, 5 June 2020)
Is Ohanian right to say that resignation to address such disparities is an act of leadership at this moment? And what else could be done to improve the picture for board diversity?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “We often hear about impostor syndrome – originally associated with females who achieve senior roles in organisations, yet feel somehow unworthy of those positions. But there’s a flipside to that – let’s call it the ‘I deserve it’ syndrome – whereby people genuinely believe they got to a certain level on merit, while failing to appreciate the context in which success is understood and interpreted. Or how it’s talked up and talked down, depending upon those who are in the leadership arena with the achiever in question.”
She explains: “What Ohanian has done – very deliberately – is to say, ‘You know what? There are a lot of people who could do this job. It doesn’t just require me. And at this time, it seems that the correct course of action is to take the positive step of replacing me with someone who enables our board to better represent the communities we’re trying to serve.’ That’s a real statement of recognition – one that shines a light on the fact that if you’re going to champion greater representation of one group, that inevitably means less representation of another.
“And that’s okay, because there’s an absolute wealth of talent and capability out there – and just as we should challenge those who show classic signs of impostor syndrome, we should also challenge those who think that their contributions cannot be improved upon, or reimagined.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on appreciating diversity,
Image of Reddit app logo courtesy of BigTunaOnline, via Shutterstock