I hope I’m not alone in finding the savage monstering of Tesco’s John Allan sad and unproductive. Allan made the mistake of putting in his two bob’s worth on the presence of women on UK boards on the day after International Women’s Day and all hell broke loose. On a panel at a Retail Week Live conference his claim that white men are becoming ‘an endangered species’ sparked outrage and even Twitter-led boycotts of Tesco.
The Daily Mail took up arms against Allan and one comment beneath the FT’s coverage of the gaffe stated: ‘This dinosaur needs to be replaced, his comment should result in dismissal. Tesco should be ashamed to have such a socially limited person to be part of its leadership. Stop buying Tesco until they start to think about social mobility.’
What Allan actually said was this: 'If you are a white male – tough – you are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.' This is palpably untrue in 2017 and the lop-sided composition of his own Tesco board shows it isn’t so, although things may change. He then went on - 'There is loads of female talent out there, you have got to be prepared to look for it. You need to tell the headhunters that you really want them to serve up the most talented people they can find but to ensure there is a good mix.' There isn’t much to argue with the second bit.
The shrill and polarised response shows just how much empty posturing there is surrounding this issue. Immediately going for your holster and letting rip with red hot invective may garner plenty of retweets but it doesn’t really advance the debate. The likely result of this is that older white men will just shut up completely and refuse to engage with the subject because they feel bullied by ‘feminist thought police.’
As it is, such blokes were already having a hard time last week trying to get their heads around Emma Watson’s reasoning behind her topless ‘Vanity Fair’ photo shoot. You only have to look at some of the venomous comments under The Daily Mail’s treatment of the Allan story to get yet another sense that gender balance in business is yet another issue getting right up the noses of those who have had enough of the metropolitan liberal elite and all their PC ways.
My suspicion is that Allan thought he was being wittily light-hearted with an ironic quip that his like is an ‘endangered species’ when he knows full well it certainly isn’t yet. It was a bit of clumsily misplaced banter. An attempt to ingratiate himself to a largely female audience, most of whom probably groaned inwardly when he said what he did. It’s unlikely he has a copy of The Female Eunuch by his bedside but I doubt he’s the crassly sexist pig he’s been portrayed to be.
Anyway the Number Twos really hit the fan and Allan was forced to issue a clarification/apology by the no doubt furious Tesco press office. 'I would like to clarify the remarks I made earlier this week at a Retail Week Live panel event where I was speaking to aspiring non-executive directors, many of them women. The point I was seeking to make was that successful boards must be active in bringing together a diverse and representative set of people. There is still much more to be done but now is a good time for women to put themselves forward for NED roles. In all the organisations I have been involved in I have been a committed advocate of greater diversity and very much regret if my remarks have given the opposite impression.'
This tempest means Allan is now highly unlikely to find himself willingly entering the debate again any time soon. What will be interesting, however, is seeing what happens to the composition of the Tesco board.
In the meantime some people are actually doing something about promoting the cause of women in UK business. This evening sees the launch of our first Agents of Change Power power list with the Women’s Business Council. We’d be quite happy to see John Allan on next year’s list if he’s willing to put in some hard yards encouraging, employing and promoting female talent.