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Tim Cook and the diversity problem in the C-suite

Stan Alcorn Oct 30, 2014

Tim Cook and the diversity problem in the C-suite

Stan Alcorn Oct 30, 2014

Apple CEO Tim Cook became on Thursday the first Fortune 500 CEO to be out, in public, as gay.

“I’m proud to be gay,” he wrote in a Bloomberg Businessweek op-ed, “and I consider being gay one of the greatest gifts God has given me.”

“Part of social progress is understanding that a person is not defined only by one’s sexuality, race, or gender,” he continued. 

But while we can see signs of that progress all around us, there’s still a long way to go — especially when it comes to the C-suites of companies like Apple. 

Tim Cook is, after all, a white man — like more than 90 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and less than 35 percent of all Americans. 

“It does not reflect at all the population,” says Vanessa Cárdenas, who focuses on changing demographics at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

By 2050, according to her projections, the majority of Americans will be people of color and the majority of the workforce will be women. Why don’t we see that diversity among our corporate leadership? 

“We’d all like to know that answer,” says Donna Dabney, executive director of the Governance Center at the Conference Board.  “I think we need to focus on what happens at the middle level: the middle management level.”

Dabney says women make up 40 percent of the workforce, but only 15 percent of C-suite executives. One problem: “Men tend to get sponsored, and women get mentored,” Dabney says. 

Advice is nice, but having someone actively advocate for you is more critical for advancement. 

Another problem is just getting on the ladder in the first place.

“We know that Fortune 500 companies often target their recruiting at elite colleges,” says Alexandria Walton Radford, who directs the Transition to College program at RTI International. “And because we know that lower-income students are underrepresented at elite colleges as are Hispanic and African-American students, that just affects this pipeline.”

The overriding theme is that altering the diversity picture requires stepping outside your comfort zone. 

“What really plays into this whole equation, and why I think we have such a huge gap, is because of unconscious bias,” says Dr. Shirley Davis, president of SDS Global Enterprises. 

Even where explicit racism is absent, people tend to pick people like them–to hire and to help them advance. The vicious cycle has helped the top levels of corporations remain much less diverse than the country as a whole. 

“The typical profile of a corporate executive, CEO or board of director is a white male in his late 40s or 50s that’s straight,” says Davis.

On that last score, at least, Tim Cook just shifted the needle.

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