The chairman of one of Britain’s biggest retailers has publicly backtracked after dramatically falling short of the level of sensitivity leaders must apply to the increasingly hot-button issue of board diversity.
While speaking on Thursday at a conference in London, Tesco Chairman John Allen said white men on corporate boards were an endangered species that would have to work harder to stay employed.
“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,” Allen told the audience. “If you are a white male, tough. You are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.”
He also said female board candidates would be in an even stronger position if they weren’t white. “If you are female and from an ethnic background and preferably both, then you are in an extremely propitious period,” he said.
Tesco is Britain’s biggest supermarket chain and, with around half a million staff, is also one of the country’s biggest employers. Allen’s original comments sparked a widespread backlash on social media and an angry response from at least one female lawmaker, who noted that eight of Tesco’s 11 directors are white men.
Allen later said the comments were only meant to be humorous, but by Saturday he had issued a clarifying statement that stopped short of a full apology.
“The point I was seeking to make is that successful boards must be active in bringing together a diverse and representative set of people.” he said. “In all the organizations I have been involved in I have been a committed advocate of greater diversity and very much regret if my remarks have given the opposite impression.”
Women occupy around 23% of the seats on British corporate boards, according to research released last year by European Women on Boards, a network that includes Britain’s Institute of Directors. In the U.S., women held about 19% of boards seats in the Fortune 1000, according to the Gender Diversity Index.
Britain is among countries encouraging companies to employ more female and non-white leaders, as some big fund managers—including BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street—expand their corporate governance teams to monitor board diversity in their investments.
In November, Microsoft announced the software giant would tie executive bonuses to board diversity targets after female representation at the company dropped to 25.8% from 26.8%, largely due to its sale of the Nokia handset business.