The chairman of Britain’s biggest retailer Tesco has said he was joking after telling an audience of aspiring non-executive directors (NED) that white men were “an endangered species” in UK boardrooms.
John Allan, who became Tesco chairman in 2015, told the Retail Week Live conference earlier this week that women and people from an ethnic background were in an “extremely propitious period” when it came to getting top jobs in business.
“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,” British newspapers quoted Allan as saying.
“If you are a white male, tough. You are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.”
Allan later told the Guardian his comments, made the day after International Women’s Day, were not meant to be taken at face value and that they had amused his mainly female audience.
“It was intended to be humorous, a bit hyperbolic. Clearly, white men are not literally an endangered species, but I was actually wanting the 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.”
In a statement on Saturday, Allan said he was a strong advocate of greater diversity and regretted if his remarks had given the opposite impression.
“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. “There is still much more to be done but now is a good time for women to put themselves forward for NED roles.”
The proportion of female directors among FTSE 100 companies is 26%, according to the Guardian, while only 10% of executives at those same firms are women.
Allan had told the conference that Tesco had appointed an almost entirely new board in the last 18 months and that three of the six new non-executive directors were women.
However, Tesco’s board still only has three women and all its members are white. According to the Cranfield School of Management’s 2016 “Female FTSE Index” of the top 100 UK companies, Tesco ranked 33rd.