Why do racial disparities persist in CT’s top corporate ranks?

During Black History Month, companies across Connecticut and the rest of the country hold events and make proclamations intended to demonstrate their support for the Black community. 

But since 2016, no Black chief executive officer has led a Connecticut-headquartered company on the Fortune 500 list of the largest U.S. corporations. Moreover, companies’ employee data further shows the significant underrepresentation of Black executives at most of the state’s Fortune 500 firms. Those numbers underscore the extent of the work needed to fulfill corporate promises made since the turbulent summer of 2020 to better support professionals from underrepresented groups.        

“I think three years might not be enough time to see change that was promised in 2020 by these large organizations,” Fred McKinney, co-founder of the Trumbull-based economic-consulting firm BJM Solutions, said in an interview. “That’s not to excuse them from what they haven’t done. It is to acknowledge that change in these very large organizations is very difficult. And these (executive) jobs don’t open up as rapidly as we think they do.” 

The 2022 edition of the Fortune 500 that was published last May further highlighted the disparities. Six of those companies had a Black CEO, equaling the annual record for the number of Black Fortune 500 CEOs. But the total still equaled only 1 percent of the chief executives in that group. 

In comparison, 13.6 percent of the U.S. population and 12.7 percent of Connecticut’s population identified as Black or African American, according to the most-recent Census Bureau data from 2021. If the Fortune 500 paralleled the national statistics, it would include about 70 Black CEOs.

Within Connecticut, there have been only two Black Fortune 500 CEOs. Ronald Williams was the first, serving from 2006 to 2010 as chief executive of Hartford-based health insurer Aetna, which was acquired by CVS Health in 2018. Ursula Burns, who was the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 firm, served from 2009 to 2016 as CEO of Norwalk-based workplace-technology provider Xerox Holdings. 

“Why were there so few like me? So few Black or female or poor-beginnings people sitting around the table I had access to?” Burns, who started working full-time at Xerox in 1981, wrote in her memoir, “Where you are is not who you are,” published in 2021. “I do know that I am not a unicorn by intelligence or endurance or education or sponsorship. My ‘uniqueness’ shone a light on the grip that men, white men, have on the systems and institutions that they built.” 

Historically, racial discrimination has contributed to the lack of Black executives — including there not having been a Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company until 1987, when Clifton Wharton Jr. took the top position at financial-services firm TIAA-CREF

It is difficult, however, to quantify how much bias remains today, particularly since there is limited data. The Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities maintains annual data for complaints based on broadly defined factors such as “race,” “national origin” and “color.” But it does not track the number of complaints, respectively, filed by Black Americans or people who belong to other racial or ethnic minority groups.

“As a Black professional, it’s something that it’s in the back of your mind because we’re aware of times in our career and history when race mattered significantly,” said McKinney, who served for 14 years as CEO of the Greater New England Minority Supplier Development Council and also held positions in the schools of business at Quinnipiac University and Dartmouth College. “It would have been impossible for a Fortune 500 company in 1960 to hire a Black CEO.”  

Many changes in recent years

Corporate executives were not oblivious to the upheaval of the summer of 2020. It marked a period when the U.S. was not only grappling with the toll of the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic but also facing nationwide protests sparked by injustices that included the killings that year of Black Americans such as George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. 

Conceding that they had not done enough to support employees, customers, business partners and other stakeholders who were Black or members of other racial and ethnic minority groups, many companies announced in the summer of 2020 the launch or expansion of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.  

“Our country is awakening to the need to meaningfully address racial injustice and equality,” Margaret Keane, the then-CEO and now executive chairwoman of Stamford-based Synchrony, the country’s largest provider of store-brand and private-label credit cards, said during an earnings call in July 2020.

Nearly three years later, Synchrony officials said that they remain committed to those efforts. 

“The pandemic and the growing awareness of racial injustices following George Floyd also had a tremendous impact on us. We were having honest conversations in ways we had never had before,” Michael Matthews, Synchrony’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, said in a written statement. “And this is not just HR’s issue — everyone is responsible. We are very fortunate to have a CEO and executive team and board — a corporate DNA, really — that truly puts people first and is committed to drive continued progress. It’s not just lip service, it’s core to who we are.” 

Among the 14 other Connecticut-headquartered companies in the 2022 Fortune 500, The Cigna Group, Charter Communications, GXO Logistics, The Hartford, Stanley Black & Decker and Otis Worldwide also provided statements to Hearst Connecticut Media that outlined their DEI initiatives.     

“Building equity and equality must continue to be the driving force behind the work we do for our customers, clients and the communities we are privileged to serve,” Eliana Nunez, vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Cigna, which provides health insurance and other health care services, said in a statement. “We’ve made great progress in the work we’ve done to date, and we take pride in that, but there’s more to do. We will continue to foster a sense of belonging for our employees, communities and customers — a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture helps everyone develop and thrive.” 

Underrepresented in the top ranks

Despite the proliferation of DEI programs, Synchrony is the only company among the state’s Fortune 500 firms where Black professionals comprise a double-digit percentage of executives, according to the most-recent employee data publicly disclosed by those companies. 

Black executives represented 10 percent of the top tier of executives at Synchrony and 9 percent of second-tier executives, compared with an overall share of 20 percent of the company’s U.S. employee base, as of the end of 2021, according to company data. 

A data-driven initiative called Advancing Diverse Talent has helped to further diversify the top levels at Synchrony, which was No. 236 in last year’s Fortune 500. The company said that its number of Black senior vice presidents increased more than 70 percent between January 2020 and December 2022. 

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