Corporate America’s striking race gap at the top

Days had passed since George Floyd’s murder, and Lee Jourdan, then Chevron’s chief diversity and inclusion officer and one of the highest-ranking Black executives at the oil giant, was struggling for the right words. What he needed from his Chevron colleagues was “a collective recognition that racism exists” — including at work, “hidden behind titles and badges and smiles.”

Over the next year, Jourdan said he saw white senior executives striving as never before to understand what it’s like to be Black at Chevron. But he was disappointed with the results of Chevron’s efforts to increase Black representation at the company.

“It became a battle between how far do we want to lean into this and not wanting to turn folks off,” said Jourdan, who retired from Chevron in May.

Eighteen months after the country’s leading businesses pledged to address racial inequality within their ranks, a Washington Post review of the 50 most valuable public companies reveals that Black employees represent a strikingly small fraction of top executives — and that the people tapped to boost inclusion often struggle to do so.

According to the analysis, only 8% of “C-suite” executives — the highest corporate leaders, often those reporting to the CEO — are Black.

At least eight companies — Walmart, Nvidia, Cisco, Pfizer, T-Mobile, Costco, Honeywell, and Qualcomm — list no Black executives among their leadership team as of December, according to information they supplied to the Post.

The percentage of Black executives in the C-suite equals or surpasses America’s Black population of 12% at 10 companies. Within that group, Black executives made up at least 20% of the C-suite at five companies — Merck, UPS, AT&T, UnitedHealth Group, and Home Depot.

Fourteen companies declined to share the racial composition of their top executives.

The review also shows that the diversity chiefs whom companies have increasingly relied on to foster inclusive workplaces are often not adequately empowered.

Only 13 companies include their diversity chiefs in top leadership, the review showed. Without that seat at the table, some current and former chief diversity officers say they have limited influence and authority to push through their initiatives.

Diversity chiefs face pressure to create opportunities for all underrepresented groups, including women and LGBTQ employees. But many say special attention must be paid to Black employees, who typically trail other racial demographics in senior leadership ranks. Since Floyd’s death, more corporations are beginning to acknowledge the role racial bias has played in how Black employees are treated and evaluated, hampering their chances of promotion.

But “at the end of the day, I measure success by what’s happening with Black representation in these organizations,” said Rosalind Hudnell, Intel’s longtime chief diversity officer who retired in 2018.

Since Floyd was killed by police in May 2020, the 50 biggest companies have pledged nearly $50 billion toward racial justice causes, according to a previous Post analysis.

While 27 of the 50 companies surveyed by the Post report tying a portion of executive compensation to diversity measures — with McDonald’s, Google, Procter & Gamble, PayPal, Apple, and Wells Fargo having made the change since Floyd’s murder — few outline the criteria for determining such awards. Wells Fargo, the Philadelphia area’s biggest bank, compensates senior leaders for increasing gender, racial, and ethnic representation in executive ranks.

And while pay equity studies are now widespread, more than a dozen companies do not break out minority groups by race, confining their reports to white and minority employees. Company statements on having successfully achieved pay equity often mask gaps between how different minority groups are faring.

“Companies say they want to tackle systemic racism, but people are so uncomfortable talking about race,” said Mary-Frances Winters, who consults with corporations on diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Most of our clients do not want to talk about ‘white supremacy’ culture. They are most comfortable using terms like belonging and inclusion because they are nice terms.”

As millions took to the streets to protest Floyd’s death, Jourdan sensed momentum to address systemic racism within corporate America — including at Chevron. To his surprise, the company tweeted “black lives matter” and proclaimed support for “all those seeking systemic change.” CEO Mike Wirth shared Jourdan’s blog post and urged employees to reflect on their biases.

But Jourdan said he had to tread carefully, mindful that the energy industry was relatively conservative and more white than other sectors. Black people represent 4% of oil and gas workers.

Jourdan instead focused on changes he felt were more immediately deliverable — such as injecting a measure of accountability into the “diversity objective” long required of every Chevron employee as part of their annual performance review.

But his overarching objective was to give Black people a better shot at competing for executive positions. Jourdan and his boss, Rhonda Morris, the chief human resources officer who then was Chevron’s sole Black C-suite executive, started by getting white senior leaders to learn more about the routine biases Black employees face at work.

Black employees also met regularly with C-suite executives one-on-one to help them empathize with what it’s like to be Black at Chevron — “so they understand the head winds that we face that they don’t have to face,” Jourdan said.

Jourdan faced more difficulty persuading Chevron to provide Black employees with official “sponsors” in senior leadership — mostly white men who could advocate for them, replicating the informal networks that have long benefited other mostly white men. “It’s a hidden path to success that people are not aware of,” Jourdan said.

Jourdan convinced the chief financial officer to pilot a formal sponsorship program open to high-p
erforming employees from all demographics. But many executives have yet to embrace sponsorship, seeing it as preferential treatment, Morris said.

Jourdan and Morris also persuaded Chevron to introduce stronger measures to root out bias in promotions. The company started by training and assigning “inclusion counselors,” neutral observers, to sit in on twice-yearly job assignment and promotion meetings to listen for biases and help decision-makers avoid “group think.” If an employee was not shortlisted for a promotion because no one in the room knew that candidate well, the inclusion counselor may advise that the committee take the time to talk to someone who does.

In the past year, the company has built on this by examining racial disparities in project assignments, performance rankings, and attrition and promotion rates, and started mitigating for hidden bias.

In 2019, at Jourdan’s urging, Chevron became the first major oil and gas company to publicly share disaggregated demographic data by employee rank and race, he said — information that was already being reported annually to the federal government. (Forty of the 50 biggest companies surveyed by the Post now release such data.)

Black employees represented just 3% of Chevron’s executive and senior managers, the lowest of any demographic, while minorities overall reached 19% of senior ranks. And yet, he said he was disappointed that the stark racial disparities revealed by the data did not immediately awaken the rest of the company to the challenges facing Black workers.

Black employees in senior management inched to 4% by the end of 2020, when minorities reached 24%. And the overall percentage of Black employees at Chevron has remained at 8% since 2014. Chevron has yet to publish its 2021 figures but a spokesperson noted that there are now two Black executives in the C-suite.

At McDonald’s, Wendy Lewis, then the company’s chief global diversity officer, recalled senior executives flocking to her as a Black woman to learn “the whole critical truth” about Black employees’ experiences and seeking her expertise on how to urgently increase Black representation in senior ranks.

“We typically do not sit at the innermost table,” said Lewis, who retired in September 2020 after four years at McDonald’s. “Overnight, it was like triage. You became one of the most significant players in the organization.”

But as Lewis later discovered, diversity chiefs often do not have adequate authority to drive deep change.

The Post survey found that nearly three-quarters of diversity officers — a role most commonly held by Black women — at the country’s biggest companies continue to report to human resources rather than the CEO. They often lack control over budgets and other resources, hiring and promotions, and business decisions that impact corporate profits and losses, key ways of gaining power and respect, according to more than a dozen current and former diversity chiefs.

Even before Floyd’s death, Lewis began discussing concrete ways to get executives invested in diversity. She first raised the idea of tying total executive compensation to diversity goals during her job interview with McDonald’s.

“Until you really start to hit value points like money and promotions, you just don’t move the needle,” she said.

Too often, she added, diversity goals become “loose and subjective” parts of performance reviews, treated like something extra instead of prioritized like other business objectives. Diversity work should have transparent expectations, measurements, and financial rewards if it’s to be seriously valued, she said.

Ultimately, Lewis decided she could be more effective working independently as a consultant.

In February, five months after Lewis’s departure, McDonald’s announced that 15% of executive bonuses would be based on increasing representation within leadership for women and historically underrepresented groups and creating a strong culture of inclusion.