Lisbeth McNabb is an investor and corporate board director. Views are the author's own.
The push for diversity on corporate boards has never been greater, though there is still work to do. Diversity on boards is important — impacting a company's culture, talent strategies, brand and ultimately the bottom line. According to McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to experience gains above the national average, while those in the top 25% for ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to earn more than the national average.
When we look deeper at the numbers, women of color occupy just 4.6% of the seats on boards of Fortune 500 companies, compared to white women at 17.9% and white men at 66%. And today, there is not a single black woman CEO among the Fortune 500.
We cannot have a singular focus on diversity around gender or race and expect to see the best results. Instead, we must look for the 'and' when it comes to our corporate boards.
Innovation requires multiple viewpoints
If the last few months have taught us anything, it is that responsiveness and innovation are a contemporary company's best chances for survival. And diversity is critically important when developing innovative strategies that meet the marketplace needs.
I have previously written about the importance of having women in the boardroom. Yet it's important to explicitly state that black women face greater obstacles as they advance in their careers. In addition to structural barriers, there are fewer examples of other black women who have achieved the top levels of corporate success, and less access to mentors at the top echelons of leadership.
According to Spencer Stuart's 2019 Board Index, only 19% of board members who are people of color are former CEOs, compared to 44% of their white male counterparts. Instead, board members of color are more likely to bring rich experiences as division heads, departmental executives, and key niche experts.
The contemporary workforce and consumers demand action, not words
Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit stepped down from the social media company's board to open a seat for a person of color. And when Debra Lee, former chair and CEO of BET Networks stepped down from the board of Twitter, she strategically first secured assurances that her replacement would be another woman of color.
These are two prime examples of what it means to truly take action in creating change in our corporate structures. So is the response we see from millennials, the largest segment of the workforce, who demand diversity in the companies they work for. More than two-thirds of job seekers cite diversity as an important factor when deciding where to work, yet half of millennials say their companies are not following through on diversity commitments.
Diversity in the boardroom is not something that just happens — we make it happen.
How to find qualified black women and people of color for your board
The argument from well-meaning board colleagues is similar to when we discuss racial diversity as it is when discussing gender diversity: "There aren't enough diverse candidates to fill our board seat."
In 5 Ways to Recruit Qualified Women For Your Board, I dismantle this argument and offer straightforward tactics like loosening the requirement for prior board experience, asking women for recommendations, and re-engineering the board selection process.
The same approach applies to recruit more qualified people of color and black women to a board.
If we want to engage people outside of the traditional board circle, we must actively reach out beyond our networks. And rather than turning to the same women of color to serve on yet another board, we must look more intently. Reach out to organizations like The Leverage Network that hosts an annual Executive Women of Color Summit and do some high-level research to uncover top black women in finance or inspirational black women in tech and kickstart a robust prospect list.
We must also look ahead and commit to help develop emerging talent. I know that as a female board member, I am in the minority, and because of that other women look to me for guidance or even just inspiration that they too can sit in my chair. By mentoring, promoting, and supporting black women, we are actively paving a path for leadership and influence in corporate governance.
We can't allow the existing calls for action against racial injustice to bypass the boardroom. Now is the time to fully commit to taking action to welcome diverse participation at the top — especially black women who are the most under-represented.