Tesco chairman thinks white men are extinct

Tesco chairman John Allan said his comments were 'intended to be humorous'. (Source: Gordon Joly via flickr)

By Lizzie Harrett

The Tesco Chairman John Allen was caught making a comment that men were “endangered species in boardrooms,” due to equality policies that often encourage the recruitment of women or BME (note: appointments are made on merit, they often merely encourage applications from women and BME individuals).

I think this is an apt moment to refer to the meme of Mr Krabbs from Spongebob playing the world’s smallest violin. I have absolutely no sympathy for white men in the boardroom being “endangered,” when in 2015 there were more men called John or Jean chairing FTSE 100 firms (17) than women (7). When looking at directors of FTSE firms, women make up just 26% and BME individuals are even lower at 8%. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but when men make up 74% of a boardroom they are about as endangered as the seagulls of Cathays.

While John Allen later said these comments were a “joke,” I suspect there is no smoke without fire. While white men still dominate every upper echelon of society, from the the judicial system to newspaper journalism, diversity recruitment schemes aim to challenge this. Dare I say that John Allen and his ilk suddenly feel challenged by a potentially changing work force? Of course, not enough has changed yet. Looking at Allen’s board he chairs at Tesco, it’s whiter than a jar of mayonnaise, with 8 of the 11 positions being filled by white men.

While I am pretty good at taking a joke, I don’t really find Allen’s joke hysterical. He states that “If you are female and from an ethnic background, and preferably both, then you are in an extremely propitious period.” The real issue is that women and particularly BME individuals often have to overcome significantly more obstacles than men to even get to the point where they can be considered for a boardroom position. Whether it’s maternity leave issues or racial micro-aggressions, these things tend to put white men a good few paces ahead at the start of a race if a boardroom position is the finishing line.

I would therefore turn John Allen’s comments around on their head and say that is in fact women and BME individuals who are an endangered species in the boardroom, with the figures speaking for themselves. As previously mentioned, diversity schemes have aimed to recruit people from a wider range of backgrounds when it comes to the city, but in the past few years this push seems to have slowed to a halt. In the private sector last year, women accounted for just 29% of directors appointed in the UK, the lowest proportion since 2012. Let’s hope this decline does not continue.

There have been some calls for individuals to boycott Tesco in response to these comments. If you can and feel strongly about it, then I say go for it. However, it seems pretty pointless unless it’s a wide-scale boycott. I don’t think Tesco’s multi-billion pound profits are going to be particularly dented by 10 people from Cathays switching from the Tesco Express on Salisbury Road to the Co-operative a few streets over.

What I recommend is to promote and elevate the hell out of these diversity schemes. If you see one, share it to friends who may be interested. Perhaps your peers don’t quite have the CV to apply to be CEO of Asda just yet, but there are lots of entry-levels programmes for women and those with a BME background. One example is Creative Access, for those who fancy going into the creative industries. Let’s try and make Allen feel truly endangered with a totally representative workforce of our population.

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