There Are Only 4 Black CEOs In the Fortune 500

Don Thompson, president and chief executive officer of McDonald's Corp., speaks at the Bloomberg Year Ahead: 2014 conference in Chicago, Illinois, on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. | Bloomberg via Getty Images
Don Thompson, president and chief executive officer of McDonald’s Corp., speaks at the Bloomberg Year Ahead: 2014 conference in Chicago, Illinois, on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. | Bloomberg via Getty Images

When McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson officially steps down in March, there will be just four black CEOs in the Fortune 500.

Even as politicians, pundits and the business community work to increase the number of women in the C-suite, Thompson’s departure is a reminder that the highest levels of corporate America are also severely lacking in racial diversity. Black CEOs will lead just .8 percent of America’s top companies once Thompson steps down. When Marvin Ellison takes the reins of J.C. Penney in August, that share will grow to 1 percent.

The lack of diversity at the top of corporate America extends beyond black CEOs. Fortune reported in February 2014 that just over 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs at that time were minorities, a classification including African-Americans, Asians, and Latin-Americans. And there were 24 women CEOs in the Fortune 500 — representing 4.8 percent of companies — as of June.

At one time there were as many as 12 black CEOs in the Fortune 500, according to Ronald C. Parker, CEO of the Executive Leadership Council, an organization representing top black executives in the Fortune 500. Why the decline in recent years? Part of it has to do with the push toward globalization, Parker told The Huffington Post: As America’s top companies placed more value on leaders with international experience, they focused less on women and minorities.

“Women and people of color aren’t afforded those opportunities,” said Parker, who served as Pepsi’s senior vice president for human resources, labor relations and global diversity and inclusion. “We’re not in the conversation early enough. Organizations who do this well are very intentional about it.”

There are other reasons why women and minorities are so rare at the highest echelons of corporate America. Unconscious biases against people who don’t look like a “typical” (aka white male) leader can make it harder for top female and minority leaders to climb the corporate ladder. Though studies show that diversity is good for business, leaders are often subconsciously more comfortable working with people like themselves. In addition, some companies committed to diversity haven’t quite figured out how to effectively recruit, cultivate and retain women and minority talent.

“People have a tendency to select individuals that they are familiar with and comfortable with,” Parker said, noting that the vast majority of board members at America’s top companies are still white men. “They are comfortable with their network of the people that they know, therefore the people that get those opportunities tend to look like them.”

Once they do make it into leadership positions, women and minority CEOs tend to have rockier tenures and less freedom to lead than their white male counterparts. They are also more likely to be tapped as CEOs when a crisis is looming, a phenomenon know as the “glass cliff,” according to research by Christy Glass and Alison Cook, professors at Utah State University.

“After they’re promoted, if the firm suffers in both the short-, medium- and long-term, they’re at very high risk of being replaced by a white man CEO,” Glass said. “One of the reasons they’re given fewer degrees of freedom is because they’re under this microscope. They don’t look like our stereotypical model of the leader. We have some biases about their competence and ability.”

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SOURCE: The Huffington Post
Jillian Berman

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