'Negligible' Gains in Boardroom Diversity as White Men Still Dominate, Study Finds

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The percentage of women and minorities holding corporate board seats at Fortune 500 companies increased slightly last year to its highest level on record, but white men still accounted for an overwhelming majority of the positions, according to a study released today.

Women and minorities occupied nearly 31 percent of the board seats of Fortune 500 companies in 2016, according to the study by the Alliance for Board Diversity, a collaboration of four leadership organizations that promotes more inclusion in boardrooms, and Deloitte, a multinational professional services provider.

That was the highest level in the study's six-year history and an increase from 2010 when the group made up 25.5 percent of the board of directors, according to the study, based on data analyzing more than 5,400 seats.

Even so, white men accounted for the bulk of the directors in 2016 with about 69 percent, compared with 74.5 percent in the 2010 study.

The most recent data highlight that the top 500 U.S. corporations, based on total revenue, have made “negligible” gains in the effort to diversify their corporate boards, according to the study.

"While there have been some gains, they have been negligible at best, and certainly not representative of the broad demographic changes we have seen in the United States in the same period of time," according to the new study, "Missing Pieces Report: The 2016 Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards.”

Brande Stellings of Catalyst, one of the four organizations that make up the Alliance for Board Diversity, said the study produced mixed results.

“It’s both good and bad news,” Stellings, vice president of corporate board services at the nonprofit research and advisory group that promotes inclusion of women in the corporate workplace, told ABC News today.

“It’s the highest representation of women and minorities that we’ve seen, but when you look at the numbers they’re also bad, when you consider the amount of women and minorities in schools, and other businesses.”

Still, added Meesha Rosa, director of corporate board services at Catalyst, “The idea is to open up the seats to new directors, so we would hope that by tracking this, this is a way of highlighting these new opportunities.”

The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), which represents 17,000 active directors across various industries, has been ”focusing on diversity in the boardroom for 40 years,” chief marketing officer Henry Stoever told ABC News today. “What is different among organizations is how people define diversity. We define diversity as having various skills, thoughts, experiences and perspectives.”

He added: “Some people want to have a singular focus, and we want to have a broad focus,” also acknowledging the value of gender and ethnic diversity.

The 2016 data analyzed was taken from 492 of the Fortune 500 companies, which accounted for 5,440 corporate board seats, down slightly from 5,463 in 2010. The study examined the boardroom presence of male and female Caucasians, African-Americans, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islanders.

More specifically, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders accounted for 7.9 percent, 3.5 percent and 3.1 percent of the Fortune 500 board seats, respectively, in 2016. They accounted for 7.6 percent, 3 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively, in the 2010 study.

The report listed several firms with the “broadest diversity,” including HP, Wells Fargo, MetLife, Archer Daniels Midland, PepsiCo, Prudential Financial and Disney, the parent company of ABC News, though it says “the number of companies that have broad diversity has remained relatively stagnant over the years.”

The study comes as women and minorities continue to log gains, according to the authors.

Seattle-based coffee giant Starbucks, for instance, hopes to diversify its slate of directors. Last month it announced it had nominated African-American Rosalind Brewer, who is the President and CEO of Sam’s Club, and Indian-American Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, to join its board.

The study authors conclude that many companies are beginning to view diversity more broadly to “encompass a range of skills, experiences, and perspectives that could help safeguard an organization against new and emerging threats,” driven by the “fact that many companies are facing a growing number of competitive, regulatory, and technological issues.”

And they advise, “It will be important for corporate boards to consider the benefits and skillsets that gender, racial, and ethnic diversity could bring to boardroom discussions.”