Early next year, Ken Chenault will step down as the CEO of American Express, a position he has held for more than 16 years. His retirement won’t just change the uppermost ranks of the company he’s led—it will also whittle the number of black CEOs in Fortune 500 companies down to three, continuing a downward trend among the nation’s biggest corporations.
Leaders of pro-diversity groups were saddened by news of Chenault’s departure.
Executive Leadership Council president and CEO Ron Parker said in a statement that “Ken has always been a true model of courageous leadership, operating with the utmost integrity,” adding, “while we are excited to learn about Ken’s next chapter in life, we are disappointed that his decision now leaves us with only three black CEOs running Fortune 500 companies.
When Chenault took over at American Express in 2001, the number of CEOs of color at the country’s biggest companies was on the rise. Chenault (who was only the third black CEO to run a Fortune 500 company) was eventually joined by Don Thompson at McDonald’s, Ursula Burns at Xerox, Roger Ferguson at TIAA-CREF, Kenneth Frazier at Merck, and Marvin Ellison at J.C. Penney, among others. Between 2005 and 2011, Fortune 500 companies added eight new black CEOs. When their overall numbers peaked (at seven, in 2007), their representation was still minuscule, representing fewer than 2 percent of all Fortune 500 CEOs, but at the very least, during the 2000s, the direction of the trend line was up.
It wasn’t just black executives who were being promoted at this time. As the sociologists Richard L. Zweigenhaft and Bill Domhoff catalogue in The New CEOs: Women, African American, Latino, and Asian American Leaders of Fortune 500 Companies, other minority groups came to be better represented as well. During that same period from 2005 to 2011, 12 Latinos and 13 people of Asian descent were promoted to CEOs in Fortune 500 companies. There were 13 Latino CEOs in 2008, and then again in 2015; the number of CEOs of Asian descent peaked in 2011, at 14.
The remaining three black CEOs in the Fortune 500 are Merck’s () Ken Frazier, TIAA’s Roger Ferguson and JCPenney’s ( ) Marvin Ellison. Frazier is the only black CEO at a company in the Dow 30.
The lack of diversity in corporate America extends to the boardroom: Just 5.6% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies are held by black men, and just 2.2% held by black women, according to the Executive Leadership Council, which promotes diversity in corporate America.