A new report from the Madison Region Economic Partnership indicates that about 96 percent of board of director positions are filled by white people.

A new survey on the diversity of south-central Wisconsin’s workforce — or lack thereof — have evoked both optimism and frustration among Madison business leaders. 

There's optimism that the numbers are getting better, and frustration that they aren't getting better more quickly. 

Workplace leadership in the Madison region skews white and male, according to last week’s survey of workplaces by the Madison Region Economic Partnership. White people comprise about 87 percent of supervisory roles, 96 percent of board of director positions, and 93 percent of “top level leadership” positions, despite comprising 85 percent of the area’s workforce.

Men are in 68 percent of top-level leadership roles, and about 64 percent of board of director roles, even though women comprise the majority in the workforce.

But the authors of the report are optimistic about the findings. The agency’s head of workforce development, Gene Dalhoff, said that while they’re cautious about drawing conclusions from two years of data, they were happy to see some increases in the proportion of leaders who are people of color and women since last year’s survey.

“We look for the metrics to move in positive directions,” said Dalhoff. “Almost uniformly for this year’s survey, that was the case.”

In two leadership roles the survey asked about, people of color saw small increases of 1 to 4 percent in their representation from 2016 to 2017. Not so with board of directors, where people of color saw their representation dip by 3 percentage points. Women saw increases of less than 1 percent in the two leadership roles the survey asked about.

Ruben Anthony, the president of the Madison Urban League, said that while there’s room for improvement, the numbers spell progress.

"I am very impressed to see that things are moving in the right direction in diversifying the supervisor level," he wrote in an emailed statement.

But others, like Jessica Cavazos, executive director of the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Dane County, are not happy with the numbers. 

“The numbers are pretty true to what we all know,” said Cavazos, adding: “We’re progressive here, but we’re still lagging behind.”

Rachel Neill, a human resources consultant and a leader in the local startup community, expressed frustration as well. She said she’s worked at major firms where women were kept out of executive roles, and where she could count the number of Latino employees on one hand. She said it’s incumbent on business leaders to do something.

“If you were sitting at a table, and they’re all white members on that board, isn’t it somebody’s duty to remove themselves, or appoint someone else with a more diverse background?” said Neill.

That’s the trouble, Neill said. “I’ve personally talked to people in these positions of leadership, and they do not believe it’s a problem.”

Cavazos agreed that there are plenty of “dinosaurs” who remain in positions of power who outwardly give “the political answer” with questions of diversity, but who don’t see its significance. That’s unfortunate, she said, since research suggests that diverse boards are more competitive in an increasingly diverse nation.

“If you’re not allowed to operate in certain ways because the corporate culture doesn’t allow it, it’s like putting a barrier to moving ahead,” she said.

The survey also polled workplaces on equity initiatives, like statements on diversity or actual staff working on inclusion. In most cases, no such initiatives were in place: 77 percent of respondents did not have a written statement with regard to diversity, 84 percent lack staff working on diversity or inclusion, and 84 percent lack demographic targets when it comes to the makeup of their workforce.

Still, said Dalhoff, some of those percentages are lower than last year.

“We certainly have organizations that I would give an A for their efforts,” he said, highlighting work done by CUNA Mutual and Summit Credit Union.

Cavazos said those kinds of initiatives are “a good start.” However, she also said that real change will come when people at the top begin having “raw discussions” about the significance of diversity, and begin actively fostering promising talent that doesn't look like them.

“Anyone can write a manual — but how do you put it into place?” she said.

Both Cavazos and Neill are cautiously optimistic that the landscape will change.

“The more awareness we bring to this topic, the more it’s in the face of these folks and they can’t deny it,” said Neill.

MadREP conducted its survey by mail with help from data scientists at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. It received 468 responses from eight south-central Wisconsin counties. Most were for-profit institutions from Dane County. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percent.

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Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.