Activists have called for shoppers to boycott Tesco after the supermarket’s chairman claimed white men were becoming an “endangered species” in UK boardrooms.
Politicians, business experts and women’s groups have all spoken out against comments made by John Allan during a speech at the Retail Week Live conference a day after International Women’s Day.
In a session for aspiring non-executive directors, Allan said: “If you are female and from an ethnic background, and preferably both, then you are in an extremely propitious period.
“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. If you are a white male, tough. You are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.”
He later claimed the comments were meant to be humorous and that he was attempting to highlight the progress made in promoting BAME and female employees.
Activists called for people to boycott Tesco in response.
Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality party, said she would be shopping elsewhere and that Allan was completely out of touch.
“Far from being in a ‘propitious’ position, any analysis of senior leadership roles in business will show the woeful under-representation of women and minority groups,” she said.
She pointed to data released by the Fawcett Society this week that showed the pay gap was influenced by racial as well as gender inequalities.
“Women, and especially BME women, are a long way from endangering men’s dominance of boardrooms,” she said.
“We are seeing a resurgence of feminist protest and activism against the kind of attitudes Allan betrays with these comments. With him at the helm, Tesco not only risks missing out on female talent, it will also alienate customers. I plan on doing my shopping elsewhere this weekend.”
A spokeswoman for the Women’s March London collective said: “We find Mr Allan’s comments extraordinary … Women are responsible for the majority of grocery purchases in the UK. As consumers we are a powerful force and can exercise our freedom to shop elsewhere to support women and locally owned businesses. Tesco needs to urgently restructure its boards.”
In the private sector, women accounted for just 29% of directors appointed in the UK last year, according to the recruitment firm Egon Zehnder, the lowest proportion since 2012.
The proportion of female directors among FTSE 100 companies is 26%, and only 10% of executives at those firms are women.
According to reports last year, only 8% of those directors were not white. People from minority ethnic backgrounds made up 14% of the UK’s overall workforce.
Oliver Parry, the head of corporate governance at the Institute of Directors, said all FTSE boards needed to do more and should make diversity a priority when filling board vacancies.
“It’s important that boards are diverse in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and background,” he said. “All companies should strive to have a board that is more representative of the society in which they operate.”
Natalie Campbell, who is a non-executive board member and co-presenter of Talk Radio’s Badass Women’s Hour, responded specifically to Allan’s comments about women from minority ethnic backgrounds.
“Yes John, I agree with you. Our brilliance shines through. I’ll certainly have your job one day,” she said.
“We have a long way to go until there is even a remote risk of John Allen being endangered, but as more women realise they deserve to be at the top table we will see a shift towards the representation he is referring to.
“His comments didn’t annoy me. It’s the same old, same old stuff I’ve heard before. They fire me up to keep going. My advice to other women is take note of the arguments made about women leaders but focus on the task at hand: taking over.”
In 2016, Tesco appointed women to half of its board’s vacant positions, but it still counts just three among its 11-strong, all-white top team.
Despite this, the company is in the top half of FTSE 100 companies in terms of boardroom diversity. Britain’s biggest grocer ranks joint 33rd on the “female FTSE” league table, seven places behind Sainsburys.
Vicky Pryce, an economist, former government adviser and author of Why Women Need Quotas, said Allan was right that men would have to work harder, but that was a good 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 said. “It’s so much harder to get there because the path is so much more difficult.
“What we’re reallytalking about is that 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.”
She said it made sense to retain the skills and talent of women because without it, the economy was poorer and less productive.
“There is always resistance to change, but I have met many men who are completely open to changes that may be happening,” she said.
Harriet Minter, a journalist and women in leadership advocate, has been vocal about the struggles women face when trying to gain promotions at work. “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 said. “I think we’ll know we have true equality when we have as many average women on boards as there are average men now”.
Speaking to the Guardian, Allan said the audience had enjoyed his “colourful turn of speech” and that he intended to “humorous, a bit hyperbolic”.
On Saturday, he released a further statement to clarify his comments as the backlash continued. “The point I was seeking to make was that successful boards must be active in bringing together a diverse and representative set of people. There is still much more to be done but now is a good time for women to put themselves forward for NED roles,” he said.
“In all the organisations 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.”