Who Rules America?  By G. William Domhoff, University of California at Santa Cruz

Diversity in the Power Elite

Diversity Among CEOs and Corporate Directors: Has the Heyday Come and Gone?

by Richard L. Zweigenhaft, Guilford College

Based on a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, New York City, August 12, 2013

For many years now, Bill Domhoff and I have kept an eye on and tried to understand diversity in the corporate elite. Why did it happen? Does it matter? Our work in the early 1980s lead us to conclude that one previously excluded group, Jews, were becoming a part of the corporate elite, a shocker back then given the level of anti-Semitism that persisted into the 1960s, but by now commonplace (Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 1982). Then, in the first edition of a book about a group of low-income black students who attended elite prep schools through a foundation- and corporation-funded program called A Better Chance, we skeptically asserted that even with degrees from elite boarding schools and the Ivy League colleges, it was not likely that very many blacks would become CEOs of Fortune-level companies any time soon due to continuing racial discrimination (Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 1991, p. 136).

However, the appointment of 14 black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies between 1999 and 2010 revealed how wrong we were. Intrigued by these appointments, and by the increasing number of appointments of white women, Latinos and Asian Americans as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, we focused on the changes that had taken place at the CEO-level in our 2011 book, The New CEOs, which came out in paperback in March 2014 with updates and a new introduction (Rowman.com or Amazon.com).

In this document I take an updated look at diversity in the corporate elite. I begin by briefly discussing the appointments of "new CEOs" between 2011 and January 15, 2014, which brings the accumulated total of non-white-male CEOs to 109 since the early 1990s, when there were only two or three. Next, I search out the non-white males who were directors of Fortune 500 companies in 2011, as well as those diversifiers who sat on the boards of trustees of one or more of four key policy groups that are very much a part of the intertwined corporate network: the Business Roundtable, the Business Council, The Brookings Institution, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Because of the rulings the Supreme Court made in 2013 that endanger the voting rights of people of color and call into question the continuation of affirmative action policies in higher education, this most current look at diversity in the corporate world may take on particular importance. Moreover, as my new findings show, the trends at the top have reversed directions with one exception. The heyday of diversity already may have come and gone. At the least, things were in a twilight zone as of early 2014.

The New CEOs, 2000 through early 2014

By the time we sent off the final manuscript for the hardback edition of The New CEOs in the early spring of 2011, we had identified 74 "new CEOs" of Fortune 500 companies. Since then we have added 35 to our list, and we continue to track these appointments. And it's a good thing we keep on tracking because it turns out that recently there have been very different patterns for the white women CEOs as opposed to the African American, Latino, and Asian American CEOs. The number of white women who were CEOs in each year since 2000 increased at a fairly dramatic rate. In 2000, there were four white women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and as of January 15, 2014, there were 23, an almost sixfold increase.

However, a new and unexpected pattern has emerged for the other underrepresented groups. By the end of 2013, diversity in the CEO position had declined for them. The number of African American CEOs dropped from its peak of seven in 2007 to six, the number of Latinos from 13 in 2008 to 10, and the number of Asian Americans from 15 in 2011 to 10. The trajectories for white women and people of color as CEOs are summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1: New CEOs by year: 2000 through January 2014

Diversity on Corporate Boards

With those findings in mind, let's turn to corporate directors. Boards of directors were the first part of the corporate elite to diversify, starting way back in the 1960s. Perhaps that's because boards usually have anywhere from 10 to 20 members and are not on the firing line every minute of every day in the way that CEOs are. There's room for a few tokens on boards, who can be used to signal that the company is sympathetic to diversity. Moreover, such directors can provide buffers, ambassadors, and legitimacy in dealing with nearby neighborhoods of color, activist organizations that represent women or people of color, political parties, and government officials. From the 1970s to the early 2000's, some white women and people of color served on five to nine corporate boards at a time, which is one reason why, along with the fact that many lacked business experience, Domhoff and I concluded that they played a different role than many white male directors. For evidence on this point, take a quick look at the section entitled "Then Things Changed Somewhat" in the Interlocking Directorates document on whorulesamerica.net.

So, if the decline in people of color in the CEO executive suites between 2007 and early 2014 is just a blip, we'd expect to see continuing diversification on corporate boards, and on the even larger boards of the corporate policy groups as well. The next section presents the results of the most detailed study to date of diversity among Fortune 500 and policy group directors.

Diversity among Fortune 500 Directors

Examining corporate boards in the early 1980s, and then again in the 1990s, it looked as if the increasing diversity that we and others found was very likely due to the social movements of the 1960s, and in particular the civil rights and feminist movements. In addition to determining the most recent numbers and percentages for women, African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans, this new study compares the demographics of people who sit on one, two, or more than two corporate boards to see if women and people of color are underrepresented or overrepresented among the interlockers. The database included all of the 4512 directors of Fortune 500 companies in 2011, and another 407 people who were directors of one of the policy groups but not Fortune 500 directors. Thus, the total sample was 4919.

To begin with, two research assistants and I searched for each of the 4919 men and women online to determine their gender, race and ethnicity. In most cases, we were able to find biographical information about race and ethnicity as well as photographs. Using both the biographical information and the photographs, we classified each person as male or female, and as white, African American, Latino or Asian American. The interjudge reliability (which is the fancy term for how much the three of us agreed) was quite high — above 99%. In the rare cases in which we disagreed, or in the cases in which we could not find sufficient information, we omitted that person from the analyses. We were able to identify the gender for 4914 of those on the list (99.9%), and we were able to identify race and ethnicity for 4625 of the 4919 (94.0%).

Whites, African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans

As might be expected, it was still the case that the large majority of corporate directors in 2011 were white males (74.4%), and the group with the second-highest frequency was white women (13.3%), suggesting — as did the findings presented earlier on white women's continuing ascent to CEO positions — that they may have been the greatest beneficiaries of the push for affirmative action that began in the 1960s. However, in terms of equality opportunity, white women are still far behind white men. In 2010, the U.S. census found that 36.8% of Americans were white men, and 37.8% were white women. Therefore, white males were overrepresented by a ratio of 2.0, white females were under-represented (0.35), and the male to female ratio was 5.6 to 1. Based on the longstanding use of over- and under-representation as indicators of power and powerlessness, it is easy to conclude that white males remain powerful, much more so than white women.

Turning to those who were not white, the group with the next highest representation on Fortune 500 boards was African Americans at 6.8%, with African American men at 5.3% and African American women at 1.5%. The 2010 U.S. census showed that African Americans made up 13.6% of the population, so both men and women were under-represented (men 0.82, and women 0.21). Notably, although African American women are much more likely than African American men to earn college degrees, and to earn master's degrees, including MBA's, African American men in 2011 were much more likely to be corporate directors than African American women: the ratio of African American men to women was 3.5 to 1.

Latinos made up 16.3% of the U.S. population in 2010, but only 3.1% of the corporate directors were Latinos (men, 2.4%, women, 0.7%). Clearly Latinos were under-represented (by a factor of 0.19, with men at 0.31 and women at .07). The ratio of Latino men to Latina women was 3.4 to 1. However, the census data for Latinos are complicated by the fact that the Latino immigrant population has grown tremendously in a relatively short period of time, and the growth in that population is skewed because so many Latinos are young, much younger than those who are the age of corporate directors. It is also complicated by the fact that many of the Latino immigrants are less likely to have college educations compared to American whites and most other immigrant groups. Even with the complications due to large ongoing immigration of young and less educated Latinos, it is apparent that Latinos are very much under-represented.

Finally, 5.6% of the U.S. population was Asian American in 2010, compared to only 2.4% of the corporate directors (men 2.0%, women 0.4%), an underrepresentation of .43 (.76 for men, .13 for women), and a 4.8 to 1 ratio of men to women. Since your head may be spinning with all these percentages and ratios, check out Table 1, which brings all these findings together in a way that I hope allows for simple comparisons.

Table 1: Fortune 500 directors by race, ethnicity and gender
 % of U.S. population% of directors% male directors% female directorsM/F ratio
Whites (n=3791)74.6%87.2%74.4%13.3%5.6 to 1
African Americans (n=293)13.6%6.8%5.3%1.5%3.5 to 1
Latinos (n=136)16.3%3.1%2.4%0.7%3.4 to 1
Asian Americans (n=104)5.6%2.4%2.0%0.4%5 to 1
TOTAL (n=4324)  84.5% 15.5% 5.5 to 1
The interlockers: One board, two boards, or more than two boards

Ever since Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote an article in 1915 that condemned interlocking directors as creating "financial power so great that even the best men have found themselves unduly influenced," there has been constant concern about the role of those who create interlocking directorates by sitting on two or more corporate boards (Brandeis, 1915: 47-48). Even if there is doubt that being a director of several companies leads to great power that compromises the independent judgment of the best of people, there is the likelihood that interlocking directorships lead to the sharing of useful information or generate greater social cohesion among corporate leaders, which may help them create common policies that they can urge upon government. Holding several directorships is also said to be of use to the interlockers themselves in developing a larger perspective that can lead to appointments to top government positions (Useem, 1980, 1984).

Some interesting patterns emerged when I analyzed corporate directors by gender, race and ethnicity to see if there were differences in who sat on one board or multiple boards (Table 2). Of all the corporate board members who were white, only about 1 in 6 served on multiple boards. But nearly 1 in 3 African Americans were "interlockers," as were about 1 in 4 Latino directors.

Table 2: Percentage of corporate directors serving on one vs. multiple boards, by race/ethnicity
 1 board2+ boards
Whites (n=3791)82.2%17.8%
African Americans (n=293)67.7%32.3%
Latinos (n=136)73.7%26.3%
Asian Americans (n=104)83.7%16.3%

To put it another way (as Table 3 illustrates): as the number of boards increased, the percentage of white males decreased, from 75.8% to 69.4% to 64.2%. In a striking contrast, the percentage of African Americans increased dramatically as the number of boards increased (from 5.7% to 10.3% to 16.2%), a pattern that held for both African American men and African American women. The results on African American directors corresponds to our earlier findings, so it may be that once African Americans show that they are acceptable on one board, other boards seek them out (Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 1998, 2006). On the other hand, the numbers in Table 3 show no clear patterns of increases or decreases for white women, Latinos, or Asian Americans, but it is notable that the number of males was at least three times the number of females for every group, whatever the number of boards.

Table 3: Proportions of interlocking directors by race/ethnicity and gender
 1 board only (n=3501)2 boards (n=650)3 or more boards (n=173)
Whites (n=3791)89.0%82.9%78.6%
African Americans (n=293)5.7%10.3%16.2%
Latinos (n=136)2.9%4.6%3.5%
Asian Americans (n=104)2.5%2.2%1.7%
Size of companies: Where in the Fortune 500?

Are the corporate directors in our various groups equally likely to sit on the boards of the largest Fortune 500 companies? Or are there more white women and people of color on the largest — and hence most visible — of these companies? First, I compared the directors in terms of the rankings of the boards on which they sat; for those who sat on more than one board, we used the largest company they sat on. As can be seen in Table 4, African Americans tended to serve on the boards of the largest companies, followed by Latinos, white women, Asian Americans, and white men. I also compared these directors in terms of what percentage from each group sat on the board of a Fortune 100 company. Once again, African Americans led the way, with 31.6% of them on at least one Fortune 100 company, followed by 28.2% of the Latinos, 26.9% of the white women, 22.2% of the white male directors and 22% of the Asian American directors. Thus, those directors who were not white males (with the exception of the Asian American directors) were more likely than the white male directors to sit on the boards of the largest companies. Taken as a whole, it appears that big companies are more concerned than smaller ones about having diverse boards.

Table 4: Rankings of the Fortune 500 companies on which directors sit, by race/ethnicity
 Mean ranking
African Americans (n=282)188.2
Latinos (n=131)199.3
White females (n=565)222.4
Asian Americans (n=100)231.4
White males (n=3143)238.6
df = 3, F = 10.66, p < .001.
"The innermost ring"

Sociologist Michael Useem (1984, p. 65) calls those who sit on three or more Fortune 500 boards "the innermost ring within the inner circle." In 2011 the innermost ring included 28 African Americans, 25 white women, six Latinos, and three Asian Americans as well as 111 white males. The 62 diversifiers within the innermost ring are highly educated, and they bring a wealth of business and legal experience to the boards on which they sit. Slightly more than half (34) were female, and almost all of the men and the women have been married and have had children.

Although I was not able to assess the class backgrounds for all of those in the innermost ring, I was able to do so for most (as in our previous work, I have relied on the educational and occupational backgrounds of their parents to estimate class backgrounds). All of the white women for whom I found information came from either upper class or upper-middle class backgrounds. For example, looking at the first three on the list alphabetically, Charlene Barshefsky, who in 2011 sat on the boards of American Express, Estee Lauder, and Intel, is the daughter of a chemical engineer; Crandall Bowles, who sat on Deere, J. P. Morgan Chase, and Sara Lee, is the great great granddaughter of the founder of Springs Industry, and she herself is the heiress to a family fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars; Carolyn Corvi, who sat on the boards of Continental, Goodrich, and UAL, is the daughter of a senior manager at Boeing.

All three of the Asian Americans came from privileged backgrounds, though none of the three was born in America. Victor Dzau, who sat on the boards of Genzyme, Medtronic, and Pepsico, was born in 1946 in Shanghai, where his father owned a chemical factory and taught chemistry at the university. Andrea Jung, the former CEO of Avon, who sat on the boards of Apple, Avon, and General Electric, is the daughter of an architect and a chemical engineer. Arun Sarin, the CEO of Vadaphone Group (a British-based telecommunications company), who sat on the boards of Charles Schwab, Cisco, and Safeway, was born in India to a once-wealthy family. His father had become an officer in the military, and Arun attended a military boarding school before attending the elite India Institute of Technology, and then Berkeley for MS and MBA degrees.

The pattern is somewhat different for the six Latinos, and quite different for the 28 African Americans. At least 15 of the 28 African Americans did not come from economically privileged backgrounds. These include, for example, Joseph B. Anderson who sat on the boards of ArvinMeritor, National Oilwell Varco, and Rite Aid, and who is the son of a widower who worked for the Santa Fe railroad; Virgil Colbert (Bank of America, Black & Decker, and Sara Lee) whose father was a factory worker who died when Virgil (one of ten children) was 13 years old; and Donna A. James (Coca Cola, CNO Financial, Limited Brands, and Time Warner) whose father was a bus driver. As for the six Latinos, I was only able to determine class background for five of the six, but both Oscar Munoz (Continental Airlines, CSX, and UAL) and Ernesto Zadillo (Alcoa, Citigroup, and Procter & Gamble) are first generation college students from working class backgrounds, so at least 33% and perhaps half of the six are not from privileged economic backgrounds.

For those in the innermost ring, therefore, there is some diversity in that there are some white women, some African Americans, some Latinos and some Asian Americans, but within those four groups the only real class diversity occurs with African Americans and Latinos, and there are so few Latinos (six) that the sample is too small to draw meaningful conclusions. Thus, the general pattern we have found in our previous research on directors and CEOs holds here as well — with the clear exception of African Americans, the large majority of those who have made it to these highest circles are from upper or upper-middle class backgrounds (Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 1998, 2006, 2011).

Diversity on four key policy groups

What about those who sat on the boards of the four policy groups that are in the center of the highly integrated corporate and policy-planning networks that are analyzed in the Power Elite section of WhoRulesAmerica.net — the Business Roundtable (BR), the Business Council (BC), The Brookings Institution (BI) and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). All four continue to be primarily the province of white men — 87% of both the BR and the BC, 73% of the BI, and 66% of the CFR. The 138 trustees of the Business Roundtable included seven white women, seven Asian Americans, two African Americans, and two Latinos; the numbers were very similar for the 119 trustees of Business Council.

There was slightly more diversity among the 45 trustees of The Brookings Institution, a mainstream think tank, with five white women, four African Americans, two Asian Americans, and one Latino. So, too, for the 32 trustees of the Council of Foreign Relations, once called a "school for statesmen" because so many of its members have been appointed to the state department over the past 70 years; its board included six white women, three African Americans, one Latino, and one Asian American. The full picture for all four groups, complete with percentages, is presented in Table 5.

Table 5: Four policy-planning groups by race, ethnicity and gender
 Business Roundtable
Business Council
Brookings Institution
Council on Foreign Relations
Whites127 (92.1%)109 (91.6%)38 (84.4%)27 (81.2%)
men120 (87.0%)103 (86.6%)33 (73.3%)21 (65.6%)
women7 (5.1%)6 (5.0%)5 (11.1%)6 (18.8%)
African Americans2 (1.4%)3 (2.5%)4 (8.9%)3 (9.4%)
men2 (1.4%)3 (2.5%)1 (2.2%)1 (3.1%)
women003 (6.7%)2 (6.3%)
Latinos2 (1.4%)1 (0.8%)1 (2.2%)1 (3.1%)
males2 (1.4%)1 (0.8%)1 (2.2%)1 (3.1%)
Asian Americans7 (5.1%)6 (5.0%)2 (4.4%)1 (3.1%)
men7 (5.1%)5 (4.2%)2 (4.4%)1 (3.1%)
women01 (0.8%)00

Although there were no black women on either the Business Roundtable or the Business Council, there were more black women on The Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations than black men. Ann M. Fudge, a former executive at General Mills and Kraft Foods, who became President and CEO of Young and Rubicam, an advertising agency, before she retired in 2007, sat on both boards, as did Shirley A. Jackson, an MIT-trained physicist who has been the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute since 1999. Beatrice W. Welters, a former IBM executive and foundation president who became the Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago in March 2010, was on the board of Brookings. The only African American male on Brookings was Larry D. Thompson, a corporate lawyer who became Deputy Attorney General during the George W. Bush administration, and the only African American male on the Council on Foreign Relations board in 2010 was Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005.

Only four Latinos (all men) were trustees of any of the four policy groups: Alberto Ibarguen, former publisher of The Miami Herald and now the President of the Knight Foundation, sat on the CFR board; Antonio Perez, the CEO of Eastman Kodak since 2005, was a member of both the Business Roundtable and the Business Council; Edgar Rios, Executive Vice President and Chief Council at AmeriChoice Corporation, was a director at the Brookings Institution; and Enrique Santacana, the President and CEO at ABB Inc, who was a member of the Business Roundtable. Ibarguen, whose father was Cuban and whose mother was Puerto Rican, was born in Puerto Rico, but grew up in New Jersey (his father worked for a pharmaceutical company). Santacana was born in Cuba (his father was a professional photographer — the family left in 1962, shortly before the Cuban missile crisis). Perez was born in Spain (his father owned a fishing business). Rios grew up in the south Bronx; he was able to attend Princeton because of a scholarship he received from a publically funded Model Cities Program.

There were 16 Asian Americans on at least one of the four policy boards — seven at the Business Roundtable, six at the Business Council, two at Brookings and one at CFR. Only one of them is a woman: Andrea Jung, the former CEO of Avon, who sat on the Business Council.

Is the heyday over?

This snapshot of diversity on corporate boards and on key policy groups shows continuing under-representation for all groups on corporate boards, and very little if any change since our study of directors for 2005 (Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 2006). In addition, these findings are consistent with a large-scale study done in 2013 by the Alliance for Board Diversity, an organization that includes four important advocacy groups for corporate diversity, one for women (Catalyst), one for African Americans (the Executive Leadership Council), one for Latinos (the Hispanic Association for Corporate Responsibility, or HACR), and one for Asian Americans (the Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, or LEAP). The ABD study compares current findings on board representation with previous studies they did in 2004 and 2010.

As of early 2014, the overall picture is not one of increasing diversity. There is a growing but still small percentage of white women who are CEOs of Fortune companies (4% of all Fortune 500 CEOs in 2013), but there has been a decline in the number of African American, Latino, and Asian American CEOs since high points between 2007 and 2011. And there is stasis at best since the turn of the twenty-first century in terms of the percentage of white women and people of color who sit on corporate boards. After decades of efforts to diversify, corporate boards are 87.7% white and 84.5% male. Domhoff and I explore these issues further in the introduction and Chapter 6 of the new paperback edition of The New CEOs — which we hope will provide a springboard for classroom discussions and future research.


Alliance for Board Diversity (2013). Missing Pieces: Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards. New York & Washington: Alliance for Board Diversity.

Brandeis, Louis D. (1915). Interlocking directorates. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 57:45-49.

Useem, Michael. (1980). Corporations and the corporate elite. Annual Review of Sociology, 6:41-77.

Useem, Michael. (1984). The Inner Circle: Large Corporations and the rise of Business Political Activity in the U.S. and U.K. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zweigenhaft, R. L. & Domhoff, G. W. (1982). Jews in the Protestant Establishment. New York: Praeger.

Zweigenhaft, R. L. & Domhoff, G. W. (1991). Blacks in the White Establishment? A Study of Race and Class in America. New Haven: Yale University Press. (Updated and extended in 2003 as Blacks in the White Elite: Will the Progress Continue? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.)

Zweigenhaft, R. L. & Domhoff, G. W. (1998). Diversity in the Power Elite: Have Women and Minorities Reached the Top? New Haven: Yale University Press.

Zweigenhaft, R. L. & Domhoff, G. W. (2006). Diversity in the Power Elite: How it Happened, Why it Matters. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Zweigenhaft, R. L. & Domhoff, G. W. (2011; paperback edition, 2014). The New CEOs: Women, African American, Latino, and Asian American Leaders of Fortune 500 Companies. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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