It's hard out there for a white man.
That was the message communicated by John Allan, chairman of the British retail giant Tesco, at a recent Retail Week Live conference. White men, he said, are becoming an “endangered species” in top business jobs, forced to compete with women and minorities for key positions.
In his speech to aspiring executives, Allan (who sits on a board made up of eight other white men and three white women) said that it's an “extremely propitious period” to be “female and from an ethnic background and preferably both.”
“For a thousand years, men have got most of these jobs. The pendulum has swung very significantly the other way now and will do for the foreseeable future, I think,” he said. “If you are a white male — tough. You are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.”
The statistics, though, tell a different story.
In Britain, women hold about 26 percent of board positions in the country's largest companies; minorities hold about 8 percent of board seats, although they make up about 14 percent of the population. Women run just 10 percent of these firms. In the United States, white men held 64 percent of board seats in 2016, according to a Deloitte study of Fortune 500 companies. Women held about 18 percent of seats, minority men about 13 percent. Just 56 minority women (4.6 percent) occupied board seats.
That doesn't mean Allan is entirely wrong. Vicky Pryce, an economist and the author of “Why Women Need Quotas,” acknowledged that white men do face more competition than before. But she doesn't think that's a bad thing.
“There are so few women in senior positions, and for a woman to rise they obviously have to prove they are really good, and often better than the man,” she told the Guardian. “People should be judged on merit, so having more women encouraged to stay and compete increases meritocracy rather than decreases it. But yes, men will have a wider range to compete against, which can only be a good thing for the economy.”
Allan later said his comments were meant to be “humorous.” “The point I was seeking to make was that successful boards must be active in bringing together a diverse and representative set of people,” he said in a statement. “There is still much more to be done, but now is a good time for women to put themselves forward for NED roles.”
In a separate interview with the Guardian, Allan said that “the context was bunch of aspiring non-executive directors, many of whom were women, and I wanted to give them some encouragement and, therefore, I used that rather colorful turn of speech. ... Clearly, white men are not literally an endangered species, but I was actually wanting to make the reverse point, which is that it is a great time for women and people of ethnic minorities who want to get on in business.”
That wasn't enough for many activists, who are calling for a boycott of Tesco grocery chains. “Women are responsible for the majority of grocery purchases in the UK,” a spokeswoman for the Women’s March London told the Guardian. “As consumers we are a powerful force and can exercise our freedom to shop elsewhere to support women and locally owned businesses.”
Harriet Minter, a journalist, joked that she had a different standard for equality. “We think equality is having more women on boards, but the hoops some brilliant women have to jump through to gain these positions just wouldn’t be necessary for a white man,” she told the Guardian. “I think we’ll know we have true equality when we have as many average women on boards as there are average men now.”