Women, Minorities Are Still Underrepresented on the Boards of Social Media and Tech Companies

Kenneth Chenault will be Facebook’s first African-American director

Diversity progress continues ... slowly
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This year has been a busy one for outgoing American Express chairman and CEO Kenneth Chenault. He will join venture-capital firm General Catalyst Partners as sole chairman, was added to the board of directors at online hospitality marketplace Airbnb, and earlier this month, Facebook announced that he was joining the social giant’s board starting next Monday, Feb. 5.

His appointment marked a rare small step forward in the slow march toward diversity among top advisors for social media and large tech companies. According to research conducted by Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity in 2016, “[s]ome progress has been made for African Americans/blacks in securing/holding Fortune 500 board seats.” Between 2012 and 2016, Fortune 500 boards saw an uptick of African-American women board members by 18.4 percent, while the total number of African-American male board members in the Fortune 500 only increased 1 percent.

The authors write: “While there have been some gains, they have been negligible at best, and certainly not representative of the broad demographic changes we have seen in the U.S. in the same period of time.”

For perspective, most boards range from nine to 11 members, and the average tenure is eight to 10 years, according to The New York Times.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, said when the news broke on Chenault’s addition to Facebook’s board, “Facebook now joins Apple, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and HP, Microsoft, Alphabet, Salesforce and a select few others in appointing African Americans to their boards. This is a good step but much more needs to be done. And we will keep on pushing for the change the country needs.”

As technology companies gain in societal influence (not to mention revenue), having a diverse board (one reflective of society, generally, as well as their user bases, specifically) can benefit not just shareholders, but also the companies’ products. A company like Facebook, which touches two out of every seven people on the planet, or a company like Apple, which in 2016 claimed that the total number of Apple devices eclipsed 1 billion, should have a diverse board to help guide the company on everything from product development to hiring practices.

Jackson said that while he will continue to attend shareholders’ meetings and raise “the same concerns about boards and c-suites,” the real focus should be on diversifying the ranks in these companies’ work forces.

“It’s not just employment of people of color: It’s connecting with the world,” he said. “One-half of human beings are Asian. One-eighth of the world is African. Facebook, Microsoft and Google are service organizations. Most of the people they service are yellow, brown, female, don’t speak English: That’s their market.”

Jackson said, “They have to increase the number of employees horizontally and recruit and train. The real challenge is hiring and training, bottom up. There is an abundance of unused talent and untapped capital. Without a chance to make a contribution, they’re locked out.”

Jackson was the only representative of an advocacy group willing to comment for this story, as organizations including the NAACP and the National Organization for Women did not respond to requests, nor did any of the female or minority members of the boards of directors listed below.

One way a company’s board is focusing on diversity hiring and training is Google’s Howard West program. The program launched last year with 26 Howard University students earning a three-month residency at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Google announced earlier this week that it is expanding that pilot program to a full academic year and opening it up to students from other historically black colleges and universities.

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