Tesco chairman John Allan ruffled feathers on 11 March with his claim that white males are becoming an “endangered species” in UK boardrooms.

While he later offered the disclaimer that he was being “humorous”, many ethnic and female observers of business trends were left thinking, ‘What is he on?’ It’s well known that the UK is falling behind on diversity targets at the top tier of corporate life, and Allan’s comments directly contradict the most powerful pieces of recent evidence in the field.

For example, in November, the Parker Review found that just 8% of 1,087 director positions in the FTSE 100 were held by black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) executives. One third of those directors are on the boards of just seven firms. Days before Allan issued his views, research from Construction News showed that the number of women on the boards of the UK’s 20 largest building contractors has dwindled in the past three years.

Why, then, do opinions such as Allan’s persist? What harm is he causing by making such unhelpful and factually incorrect statements? And what can leaders do to challenge these misconceptions?

Kate Cooper, head of head of research, policy and standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management, says: “The business case for diversity is a compelling one. The better your staff relect the customers you intend to serve, the more likely you are to give a better level of customer service and to better understand their needs. And there’s also compelling evidence to suggest that more innovation arises from diversity.

“There is, I think, a problem with the way we consider quotas – if, instead of saying, ‘Let’s have 30% women’, we said, ‘let’s save 70% of our top jobs for men’, the conversation would immediately takes on a very different tone. What’s so disappointing about comments such as John Allan’s is that people with those views are looking at things being taken away from their privilege, rather than adding to business performance.”

Cooper notes: “If you have a diverse board, it isn’t just about men and women. It’s about ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background… all of those things bring new, interesting perspectives to bear on what the firm is doing. So my suggestion here for leaders who are enthusiastic about diversity would be to go out there and explain how many jobs you’re saving for white males, rather than taking away from them.

“Much like a lot of social discourse at present, Allan’s comments are symptomatic of people believing what they want to believe, rather than taking hard evidence onboard. If you go into a room where there are more women than you’d expect, your response is immediately going to be ‘Oh… there are a lot of women here.’ If you count them up, you may find that they still comprise only about 20% to 30% of those present. It’s exactly the same with other forms of diversity: if you’re not expecting to find BAME staff in a particular environment, then any will stand out.”

She adds: “It all comes down to Allan’s personal perceptions of what constitutes ‘many’. This is something I feel quite strongly about: despite his after-the-fact ‘humour’ defence, his stance isn’t funny – it’s a real abuse of his privilege, and it makes him look as though he’s not moving on. But if you really focus on the business cases for customer service and innovation, he’s not actually making a lot of business sense.”

For further thoughts from the Institute on the importance of diversity, check out this learning item

Image of John Allan courtesy of Tesco