Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns told CNBC on Tuesday that rethinking the criteria can help companies improve the gender and racial diversity of their boards of directors.
In an interview on Closing Bell, Burns – the first black woman to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company – said the notion that there is a shortage of qualified board members who are female, colored, or both is “small-minded” .
“The specs are biased, not that people are incapable. Some people are, but we’re not talking about that here, ”said Burns, who sits on the boards of Uber and Exxon Mobil.
“They specified it so that only 5 or 10 people could meet the specification, and every one of those guys is boarded up. Some of them are getting too old to serve, ”she said.
For example, Burns said the requirement that board members be current or former CEOs has been a barrier to black business people being nominated.
“Guess what? We were probably 20 in our entire existence. So when you get through 20 you won’t get any more if that’s the criteria,” said Burns, whose memoir “Where Are You? Not Who You Are” , was released on Tuesday.
The issue of director diversity was brought to a brighter spotlight last year after the assassination of George Floyd sparked a wave of anti-racial protests around the world and corporations pledged to eradicate racial inequalities in recruitment, board composition and the economy.
In 2020, according to a recent report by consulting firm Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity, 82.5% of board seats in Fortune 500 companies were occupied by whites.
Burns has said that she is working to ensure there is a sustained momentum in improving representation across American businesses. “The intensity has changed a lot,” she told CNBC earlier this year. “We’ll make a movement out of it.”
There are structural challenges to be overcome, Burns said on Tuesday.
“What happened in America is that the field of play was … defined by white men. The rules of the game were defined by white men. The referees are white men,” she said. “These white men say, ‘We don’t have anyone to go with this game that I made especially for me, except people who look like me,'” she added. “Well, surprise, surprise.”
Burns said when someone in the US asks her about referrals for prospective directors who are female, colored, or both, “I can give you a list of names if you want them.”
However, she said, she would rather handle such a request differently.
“I would tell them, ‘You send me your spec, I’ll fix it for you, help you fix it, and then I’ll give you a ton of names that you wouldn’t believe would be phenomenal directors. ‘ “