Soundbite, click-bait, call it what you will – a quote can speak a thousand words, as Tesco’s chairman John Allan has no doubt discovered

Speaking at Retail Week Live last week as part of a panel, Allan described the white male non-executive director as an “endangered species”.

If you were to take a glance at the headlines over the past few days, you might be inclined to think this is all he said. If that were the case, outrage would be not only warranted, but expected.

However, as is usually the case, a quote rarely tells the full story – particularly one that has been taken out of context.

Allan’s rally call

Allan wasn’t lamenting the fact white men are not in demand. He was issuing a rallying call for women and those from minority backgrounds to grab the opportunities presented to them.

“If you are female and if you’re from an ethnic minority background, preferably both, you are in an extremely propitious period, so go for it, frankly,” he said

“For a thousand years, men have got most of these jobs. The pendulum has swung very significantly the other way now and will do for the foreseeable future.

“If you are a white male, tough – you are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.”

There are lots of places where one could take a scalpel to this battle-cry if they chose, as so many have.

But, fundamentally, Allan was expressing a statement of optimism about the future of the sector and encouragement for the people who work within it – albeit a clumsily worded one.

Foot-in-mouth or stony silence?

Allan has since said his words were “intended to be humorous” and “a bit hyperbolic”. At a time when most business leaders are media-trained within an inch of their white, male lives, this candour and openness is refreshing.

In order to confront the inequality in our sector, the people at the helm have to talk about it. I’d take a foot-in-mouth moment from someone attempting to confront the issue over stony silence on the subject any day of the week.

Allan’s statement was a well-intended faux-pas, not a leader in a position of privilege bemoaning changes to the status quo.

The retail and the business sector at large has a long road ahead to achieve true gender and racial diversity on its boards. 

As Unilever’s UK and Ireland general manager Gina Boswell pointed out at Retail Week Live, only 7% of FTSE 100 companies have a woman at the helm.

Furthermore, women make up 26% of directors across these businesses and 10% of executives, while only 8% of directors are not white.

We are a way away from achieving an egalitarian business utopia. However, I doubt berating those leaders who dare to speak out on the subject because they did not have a perfectly polished answer will get us any closer to it.