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Race in the European Boardroom

                   Complete Survey:  Race Relations 2011


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  Web Editor:
  Vernellia R. Randall
Professor of Law
The University of Dayton
Web Editor


 Race in the (European) Boardroom"
© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.

By Rana Foroohar Newsweek International

" Last month a team of Newsweek reporters set out in search of ethnic minorities in the boardrooms of Europe, knowing full well we were treading on delicate and uncharted ground. We had no idea how delicate. Over the course of a two-week search, our team of eight contacted the 100 largest corporations in Europe, asking how many minority employees had risen to their top ranks. Our assignment was to locate the glass ceiling, to see just how high minorities have ascended in the corporate world, and thus open a kind of window on racial progress. We got the numbers we were looking for (chart), but we also provoked an outpouring of anger and denial that was perhaps even more revealing. To our (mainly American) eyes, this backlash suggested a European corporate culture far more uptight and confused about race than it cares to admit.

Most European firms donít track minority hiring figures at all, and many others were confused or angered that anyone would even raise the issue. "What a racist thing to ask!" fumed one executive at a Frankfurt bank. A spokesperson for a German chemicals company scanned his memory for a minority board member and recalled, "We had a Belgian once." Struggling gamely to be responsive, a press officer at a Swiss pharmaceuticals company noted that "Swiss are a minority here," on a board stocked with members from England, Germany, Austria and America. A white spokesman for a French telecom firm offered himself up as "a useful case in point"part Hungarian, part German, British-passport holder, living and working in France" His company, he concluded, "is a pretty colorful place."

He was more helpful than many. In assimilationist France, where all immigrants are expected to become unhyphenated French citizens, executives tended to dismiss our queries as irrelevant or illegal under French anti-discrimination laws. In Germany, many executives were tongue-tied by both law and national history, uncomfortable discussing race, much less counting employees by race. Our basic question seemed straightforwardly statistical: how many minorities do you employ at the following levels:"CEO, board member, top executive (president, division head) or senior manager (as defined by the company)? We defined minorities as people of non-European origin, a definition that would include everyone from Asians or West Indians in Britain to Turks in Germany. Of the top 100 companies in Europe, 69 either did not respond to our survey or could not because they do not track issues of race in the workplace. Even to raise the issue struck many as backward. "Itís a question that doesnít fit our times." snapped a press officer from a German media giant.

With all due respect, these questions are timely, fitting and impossible for Europe to duck much longer. The minority population in Europe is nowhere near as large as in the United States, so Europe has not yet been forced to confront issues of race in the workplace as directly. But that will change. Immigration from Africa, Asia and the Arab world is rising, yet corporate Europe remains far more of an all-white clubhouse than corporate America, where big companies not only track minority hires but often boast about them. In recent months, African-Americans have risen to the CEO post at top corporations like AOL Time Warner and American Express, inspiring a rethink of the state of black leadership in America.

In Europe, we could not find one top company with a minority CEO, and few with even one minority officer at any senior level. Europeans who are offended by our questions may soon be forced to rethink, too. The European Union will begin enforcing a new anti-discrimination law in 2003; that will have the effect of pressuring European companies to track minority hiring more closely. The new EU law will also trump national German and French laws that now discourage identifying employees by race. The argument for counting is simple: if you donít know how many minorities you employ, you canít begin to talk definitively about race or racism in the workplace. "Thereís a pretend colorblindness in Europe today." says Dr. John Wrench of the Danish Centre for Migration and Ethnic Studies. "When people donít count ethnic-minority participation in the workplace, itís an impediment to consciousness."

On a continent that likes to think of itself as more socially progressive than America, many executives offer quick explanations for the absence of minorities in high places. For one, minorities (including white Hispanics) account for 31 percent of the U.S. population, but in Europe, ethnic minorities represent anywhere from 6 percent of the population in Britain to about 1 percent in countries such as Spain and Italy. Moreover, most ethnic minorities in Europe are relatively recent immigrants, and have not had generations to work their way up the university and corporate ladder as, say, Africans have in America.

But such arguments fail to fully explain why minorities are so disproportionately scarce in corporate offices. If minorities are not ready for the corporate ladder in Europe, why are they often so successful as entrepreneurs, especially in places like Britain? There, minorities who make up 6 percent of the population are starting 9 percent of new businesses. Government statistics show that 18- to 24-year-old Asians and blacks are overrepresented in higher education, yet are less likely than whites to find jobs directly after graduation. Malek Boutih of Franceís Association Against Racism recently conducted a test by sending identical resumes, one with a French name and the other with an Arab name, to a major bank. The French resume elicited an invitation, the Arab a rejection.

These contradictions point to the deep ambivalence that still exists about welcoming minorities in Europe. One of the few countries to produce studies of race in corporate hiring is Britain, where there are no legal obstacles to such studies. In February 2000, a Runnymede Trust survey of the 100 largest companies in Britain found that minorities (including Indians, other Asians and West Indians) represent only 1 percent of senior managers. The survey also showed that these minority executives were far more eager to take assignments in the United States than in continental Europe, citing fears of racial backlash, violence and far-right party politics. Runnymede, a think tank, concluded that "racial equality is not firmly on the business agenda."

The coming changes in European law are likely to jar the sense of racial harmony. It was only last November that the French National Assembly adopted a new law against discrimination in the workplace; it forbids companies to identify workers on the basis of national origin, sex or ethnicity. Many French companies cited that law in declining to answer our survey, or in dismissing race as an issue. The comment from the spokesman for a French telecom company was typical: "The notion of ethnic minority does not exist in our Firm"

Immigration from Africa, Asia and the Arab world is rising, yet corporate Europe remains far more of an all-white clubhouse than corporate America, where big companies not only track minority hires but often boast about them.

What is an African or Asian to think of that? Not surprisingly, NEWSWEEK found very few minority executives who would publicly discuss their experiences in the boardroom. Even at British Telecom, which is one of the more progressive European companies and has a relatively high number of top-ranking minority executives, none of those executives wished to be interviewed. And surveys have found corporate leaders in Europe deeply disconnected from the sense of exclusion widely felt by their own minority employees. Yasmin Jetha of Abbey National bank is the only Asian woman on the board of one of Britainís 100 largest companies, and she puts the issue gently: "Chicken tikka masala is now the national dish of Britain, but the corporate world is a little late in coming to realize this."

Europe will have to invent a new corporate jargon to deal with increasingly unavoidable issues of race in the workplace, particularly as immigrant populations grow. In Germany the old distinction between Deutsch and Ausl√§nder, or foreigner, hardly covers the increasingly complex European ethnic reality. German bureaucrats have already come up with a word to distinguish European Union members: EU-Inl√§nder, or "EU natives". But German companies still grope for the right words to deal with nonwhites, for reasons that go well beyond the discomfiting legacy of Nazi racial theory. Gertrude Krell, a diversity expert at Potsdam Universityís business school, points out that the German word for personnel is das Personal "a noun without gender, implying in German grammar not a human but a thing. "the word programs us to think of something undifferentiated and homogenous, with no room for individuals or diversity," she says. Her solution: English. Sheí pushing the phrase "diversity management" at business seminars and conferences.

Mentoring, training and monitoring to promote minorities is a burgeoning industry in the United States, but has been slow to take hold in corporate Europe. Dr. Dwain Neil, who was head of recruitment and diversity at a major European oil company in the mid-1990s, says that hiring managers often rated minority and white candidates differently, even for the same answers in job interviews. "we stopped using some of those managers," says Neil, now a diversity consultant. "It became clear to me that we had a blind spot."

Now the United States is starting to export diversity advocates and trainers to Europe. The Chicago-based National Black MBA Association recently opened a branch in London, where it runs networking sessions to bring together minority recruits and blue-chip European firms. American consultant Jerome Mack runs Equalities Associates in Britain, and advises on "diversity turnaround projects for companies such as Lloyds TSB, the British bank. Since a 1996 internal study found what one executive calls "a real sense of isolation among Lloydsí minority employees, new diversity programs have increased the minority share of the bankís new graduate-school recruits from 2.5 percent to more than 20 percent.

That may be only a beginning. Practical arguments for diversity are eroding the invisible barriers. As more European companies move into new territories, theyíre looking for managers who can open up local markets. Derek Hudson, who helped land business for British Gas in his native Trinidad before BG made him a vice president in Britain, says there is obvious "synergy" between minority hiring and business development.

On a continent facing future labor shortages, companies ignore minority talent at their peril. Yet few have any real strategy for recruiting minorities of any kind. Commerzbank has had a program to promote women since the 1980s, and last year became the first major company in Germany to appoint an ethnic Turk (Mehmet Dalman) to its board. But not many have followed. "How can you talk about race in the German boardroom when you canít even find a German woman there?" says Commerzbank spokesman Dennis Phillips.

New law will push Europeans to tabulate matters of race more systematically. Itís already illegal to discriminate against minorities in most European nations. But the EU directive that takes effect in 2003 will shift the burden of proof in discrimination cases from employees (where it rests under national laws) to employers. This will pressure employers to keep records on minority hires, so they can prove themselves innocent of discrimination if dragged into court. EU employment spokesman Andrew Fielding says the law doesnít require better records, but that will be the practical result for businesses that want to protect themselves.

Corporate views of race will also be shaped by the growing reach and powers of the European Union itself. As the union expands its borders to include Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and perhaps someday even Turks, it will be increasingly difficult to exclude nonwhite minorities who are not historically members of the European club. "When I say, "I am a European," there are plenty of people whoíll look at me and say, "No, youíre not, says Maureen Salmon, the executive director of the British Black MBA Association. "I think that attitude plays in a larger way to the debate around European unity"

Itís not possible to create a "colorblind" continent by simply outlawing discussion of race. And bald facts"like the number of ethnic minorities in high corporate places"are only a crude, if necessary, beginning. Europe as a whole recognizes that now, even if many of its largest corporations (no matter how well intentioned) do not. To paraphrase Ben Okri, the African-born writer living in Britain, nations become the stories they tell themselves, stunted by lies, or flowering as truths. Until now many European companies have told themselves that the glass ceiling doesnít exist, a half truth at best. As that story begins to change, corporate Europe has an opportunity to flower.

With Stefan Theil in Berlin, Samia Marais in Paris, Tara Pepper in London, Heike Wiedekind in Frankfurt, Barbie Nadeau in Rome and Emma Daly in Madrid


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