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The powerful must ‘see beyond' themselves to foster diverse leadership: HRC President

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Fortune 500 companies increased the share of Black board members in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder in May 2020 — but corporate boards remain 82.5% white, according to a study released this week by the Alliance of Board Diversity and the consulting firm Deloitte. 

Similarly, white people continue to hold the vast majority of CEO positions. Only five Fortune 500 chief executives are Black

In a new interview, Alphonso David — the first Black president of leading LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — called on every individual in a position of power to "see beyond yourself" when determining who to put on track for a leadership slot. In turn, diversity will make its way to the upper reaches of a company or organization, he said.

"It is that simple," says David, who joined HRC two years ago after serving as chief counsel to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

"When you're thinking about implementing policy, when you're thinking about hiring, when you're thinking about promotion, when you're thinking about the issues that you confront in your respective spheres, see beyond yourself, and see yourself in something, someone who looks nothing like you," he adds. 

Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David at the 37th annual HRC New England dinner on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019 in Boston. The HRC New England dinner brings hundreds of LGBTQ advocates and allies together for an evening of celebration across greater New England.(Josh Reynolds/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign)
Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David at the 37th annual HRC New England dinner on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019 in Boston. (Josh Reynolds/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign)

"In most cases, that is the main barrier, we're unable to see beyond ourselves, or we see others as being the other," he says.

Black employees comprise 12% of the entry-level workforce but only 7% of the managerial workforce, according to McKinsey & Company study released in February. 

When compared with their white counterparts at the same company, Black employees are 23% less likely to receive “a lot” or “quite a bit” of support to advance and 41% less likely to view promotions as fair, the study found.

Lack of diversity in leadership plagues companies across sectors, perhaps most starkly in the lucrative management positions at tech giants. 

A diversity report released by Facebook (FB) last year found that women hold 34.2% of the company's leadership positions and Black employees hold just 3.4% of such slots. At Google (GOOG, GOOGL), women account for 26.7% of leadership positions and Black employees make up just 2.6% of them, according to a diversity report released last year.

David said organizations should implement policies and practices that foster diversity, helping leaders see beyond the limits of their personal experience. 

"If we can implement policies and practices, and engage in a way where we see beyond ourselves, then I believe, frankly, that we may be able to realize the true promise of what we call our democracy," he says.

Each year, HRC publishes an annual assessment called the "Corporate Equality Index," which evaluates companies on their treatment of LGBTQ people. The 2020 report identified the importance of employee resource groups offered specifically for LGBTQ people, and the additional benefit of a company executive who supports the endeavor. 

Among 938 companies found to have an executive champion for an LGBTQ resource group, 57% of the executives self-described as allies and 33% as openly LGBTQ, the report showed.

David, who is gay, was born in Silver Spring, Maryland but at a young age moved with his family to Liberia. His uncle, Liberian President William Tolbert, was killed in a coup in 1980, and at age 14 David moved back to the U.S., enrolling in school in Baltimore. 

"I would go to the restroom, and kids would pull down my pants and ask me where my tail was, because I was from Africa," he says.

While it's difficult for others to fully understand his unique lived experience, it's crucial that individuals in power make an effort to understand him and others from marginalized backgrounds, he said.

"I as a Black man, as a gay man, as an immigrant, I have those three identities, and the experiences that I confront because of those identities," he says. "It may be difficult as my lived experience; it may be difficult for you to understand and appreciate my lived experience."

"But if you're in a position of power, understanding my lived experience is going to be key to creating what we call diversity and inclusion," he adds. "Creating those platforms, where everyone can come to the table and be valued and also be in an environment where they can actually thrive."

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