In 2022, Columbia Business School Professor Thomas Bourveau was researching the diversity practices of major US companies when he encountered a question he couldn’t answer: Which top firms choose to publicly release their diversity statistics, and which choose to hide that data?
To answer the question, he filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the release of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) forms from 3,000 publicly traded companies, but his request was quickly shut down. “We received an email rejecting our request and saying that those reports are confidential,” Bourveau says. “I thought it would take another five years to get the data.”
But it turns out, journalists from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) had filed for the release of a nearly identical set of data so Bourveau didn’t need to pursue his own FOIA request. In April, data was released for 75 percent of the federal contractors in the United States, roughly a third of the country’s biggest public firms, spanning 2016 to 2020. “We started crunching the numbers the same day,” he says.
The results of that analysis appear in Bourveau’s recent paper, “Behind the EEO Curtain,” which reveals an unprecedented window into the racial and gender diversity — or lack thereof — of the country’s largest companies and how they share that information with the public. The paper found robust evidence that companies that underperform in their diversity practices at the managerial level tend to conceal their EEO filings — and that market forces may not be enough to compel companies to give the public, or investors, the full picture.
Assessing the Landscape
The EEO filings Bourveau requested aren’t new. Granted the authority by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC requires any publicly traded company with more than 100 employees to declare the racial and gender composition of its staff, broken down by job categories. But those filings have always been confidential, and while some companies do publicly disclose them, “the vast majority still do not,” Bourveau notes.
Bourveau’s research found the degree of underrepresentation in first and middle managerial roles varied by race, with Black employees most underrepresented, followed by Hispanic and then Asian workers. And that gap increased with higher ranks of management. “On average, Black employees made up 8 percent of the workforce in our sample, but only 4 percent are managers,” Bourveau says. “It’s easy to have a token minority or a token woman on a corporate board, but our data reveals a real lack of diversity in first and middle managerial ranks.”
One limitation with the information the EEOC collected was that it wasn’t interactive, preventing Bourveau from using it to draw conclusions about compounded minority identities. For example, Bourveau couldn’t determine the number of employees that were both Black and female. “This is what I really wish I could see,” he says, “because we’d potentially see even larger gaps there.”
Who’s Pulling Back the Curtain
Bourveau’s next analysis examined which companies voluntarily shared their EEO information and which chose to keep it confidential. Overwhelmingly, he found that companies that were doing better in their diversity efforts were the ones choosing to make the information available to investors. “Only 20 percent of firms put the data out,” he says. And perhaps unsurprisingly, “that 20 percent are among the firms that perform the very best on diversity.”
The scarcity of this data has significant implications for investors who are interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion metrics. The firms that are the least diverse are not making that information available, making it impossible to make an informed decision. “If you’re an investor, you cannot infer the demographics for all major corporations, because you’re only seeing statistics from the most diverse companies,” Bourveau says.
He also found that public disclosure on diversity was more common in certain industries — particularly technology, banking, and finance. “This is where there’s more pressure from stakeholders,” Bourveau says. “When you’re a recent graduate from a leading university in tech, you’re able to say, ‘Based on my values, I won’t join a company that does not promote women and minorities.’ But if you work as an entry-level employee at the grocery store, you don’t necessarily have that luxury of choice.”
Moving Towards Full Disclosure
So, how do we bridge the data gaps? The first step, Bourveau recommends, would be for investors to make choices based on this new data. “The good news is, everyone can look at it,” he says, because the FOIA release is available to the public. Because the data only goes to 2020 — and includes only 75 percent of publicly traded firms — Bourveau expects that investors will start requesting proof that these companies’ demographics have improved. “Investors will start saying, ‘So we know you’re not really doing great. Can you please provide updated information?’”
But he acknowledges that market forces are not likely to drive a critical mass of companies to voluntarily share this type of information with the public and suggests a disclosure mandate might end up being the best solution. Bourveau’s paper cites two letters from investors that implore the Securities and Exchange Commission to mandate the disclosure of diversity statistics, pointing to a “growing body of evidence” that there’s a connection between diversity and company performance.
“The SEC’s mandate is to protect investors,” Bourveau notes. “So imagine that tomorrow, consumers decide that they will boycott a firm that has an unbalanced number of men versus women on a managerial level. That’s a source of risk for an investor.”
Whichever route the market takes, full diversity disclosure is just a matter of time, Bourveau says. “I’m assuming one or the other — or maybe both — will materialize in the coming year.”
In this webinar, William M. Klepper, PhD and adjunct professor of management at Columbia Business School, discusses the importance of inclusion to empower both leaders and teams, shares insight on his integrated leadership model, and provides listeners with ideas to achieve high performance: