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We need to talk about why we still see CEOs as white men (and how to challenge that)

Leadership coach Brandy Mabra details her experience with bias and how she turned a challenging moment into advocacy.

We need to talk about why we still see CEOs as white men (and how to challenge that)
[Photo: Hunters Race/Unsplash]

Recently, what should have been a monumental moment for me–my first published article in a national business publication–felt like a stinging blow. My initial thrill clicking on the link the editor sent over came to a crashing halt as I took in the stock image in front of me and felt the tears build up in my eyes. 

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What? How? Why? I was incredulous. My article about common mistakes leaders make and how to fix them. My article that had been carefully written based on the knowledge I accumulated from more than 15 years at the helm of my own company, had been topped with a stock image of a white man standing before his colleagues, presumably representing the “leader” in the depicted situation. 

As a Black woman, I will tell you, it hurts. The carelessness and obtuseness of one single photo felt paramount. That even in 2022, an implicit bias our society still carries around is that “CEO” must mean “white and male.”  

I allowed myself to sit with my hurt and anger for some time, but in the end, I decided I could turn this experience into a moment of advocacy. After all, awareness is at the heart of all advocacy and change efforts, and if people are not aware of the fact they may hold this implicit bias, then how are we ever to change? 

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In contemplating how to educate others about my experience, and how they can do their own individual work to address an internal bias like this, my thoughts naturally aligned into a three-phased learning model. I hope that sharing it will inspire awareness and change in your life and work.  

Phase 1: Begin by deconstructing your own potential biases 

You don’t need an expert psychologist to tell you that, as human beings, we are all products of the environments we were raised in. That is, we all have hidden biases ingrained in our unconscious minds, instilled by our most primitive experiences in life. 

Where people go wrong, however, is assuming that, because of our biases, we lack the ability to control how we respond. That we lack the ability to choose our actions. 

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Here I interject to ask, are we truly satisfied with that premise? That as humans, we are just a product of our backgrounds/environments and have no choice or free will over our actions? 

I, for one, am not. 

I encourage you to spend some time journaling, meditating, or consciously contemplating what words like “leader,” “CEO,” and “president” mean to you. What do these people look like? What do they sound like? What are they wearing? What character traits do they have? How do they appear under crisis? Close your eyes and notice what comes up for you. As I said, awareness is the starting point for change. 

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This phase of the learning process is all about awareness and uncovering. What are your internal biases? And now that you know them, will you choose to challenge your biases with your actions? 

Phase 2: Shift awareness into action 

Once you’ve learned to question your biases, that questioning mentality can really become your way of thinking and executing on a daily basis.  

An ideal place to begin is by questioning and deconstructing your own workplace diversity, be it as the CEO of your own company, or an employee at a mid-sized agency. Whatever your role, you have the ability to look around and decide whether the demographic makeup of your work environment aligns with the actions you want to be taking.  

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As a society, I believe we are privy to always viewing conflict from a negative lens. In reality, conflict and push back can lead to change and growth. Ask yourself, are you surrounding yourself with only people who look like you and think like you?  

If on a daily basis you are receiving more “I agree,” then “here’s a different perspective,” then you are not broadening your thinking and innovation to its true potential. Surrounding yourself with clones will only lead you to a dead-end. In fact, research shows that diversity produces valuable financial gains for companies, not losses.  

A work culture of “blend-in” individuals only suppresses a team’s talent instead of igniting it. I have worked for so many companies where employees were rewarded for “going with the flow” instead of “rocking the boat.” I challenge the very core of that message and the culture it creates in a work environment.  

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This phase of the learning process is all about challenge and discomfort. Push yourself to be surrounded by people who challenge your way of thinking, encourage you to think outside the box, and value a diversity of perspectives. 

Phase 3: Reflect on the deeper question: Does our leadership actually look this way and, if so, why? 

Which leads me to the final phase of this learning model. I wanted to pull on some actual data to determine whether our automatic bias of the white male CEO aligns with the current data trends out there. 

This learning phase is all about analysis and numbers. Because knowing the data and building that awareness will only help as you forge ahead consciously choosing your actions. 

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In a 2021 research summary published by Zippia, and verified with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census, data scientists found that 64.2% of CEOs are men, whereas 30.9% are women; in addition, the most common ethnicity reported is White (81.1%), followed by Hispanic or Latino (7.0%) and Asian (6.8%). The average age of employed CEOs is 52.  

According to Investopedia, although Black people make up about 13.4% of the U.S. population, only six were CEOs in 2021, up from five in 2020. In fact, the annual number of Black CEOs at Fortune 500 companies has remained so stagnant, that it has oscillated between four and seven CEOs total in the past 18 years. 

Now that you are aware of the data, perhaps the initial shock of my experience has worn off. After all, the data does in fact point to the statistical probability of a CEO being a white man.  

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But if anything, I hope reading this leaves you with awareness. Awareness that you are not your biases . . . that with conscious choice, we can align our actions with the change we want to see. 

I challenge you to consciously choose your actions not because of your biases, but in spite of them. 


Brandy Mabra is CEO of Savvy Clover Coaching & Consulting and a business and leadership coach.

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