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Equality and diversity and governing bodies

This article was previously published on the Leadership Foundation website.

The diversity of boards and governing bodies is receiving greater attention. The updated UK Corporate Governance Code, the Committee of Universities Chairs’ (CUC) revised Higher Education Code of Governance and the grant letter issued by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to HEFCE all give prominence to the issue. In Scotland, the Scottish government is consulting on the aim for there to be gender parity on  governing bodies.

The UK Corporate Governance Code warns that a lack of diversity can lead to ‘groupthink’. The Code indicates that diversity includes, but should not be limited to, gender and race. The Code acknowledges that diversity is about differences of approach and experience. However, some commentators have expressed the concern that most women being appointed to boards are coming from essentially the same backgrounds as the men they replace, and as a consequence increasing the proportion of women on boards is unlikely to increase diversity.

One of the seven primary elements of the revised CUC Code (element 6) is the need for a governing body to promote equality and diversity. Governing bodies are expected to routinely consider their composition and take steps to ensure they reflect ‘societal norms and values’. Stressing the need for change the 2015-16 BIS grant letter to HEFCE indicates there is further work to be done so that ‘higher education governors and senior managers are drawn from the full range of excellent people, who are underrepresented at the top level of higher education.’ It should be noted that the funding bodies are subject to equality legislation, notably in relation to their public sector duties.

The current emphasis on diversity reflects concerns that many governing bodies have in the past been self-perpetuating, with new governors largely recruited through personal contacts and networks. A starting point for change is for a governing body to accept the need and benefits of having a more diverse membership; and then to take effective action to increase their diversity.

The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) has been established to support higher education institutions improve equality and diversity. Set up in 2006 and funded by the four higher education funding bodies in the UK and two sector representative bodies, the ECU is a registered charity. The ECU’s website offers a rich resource of information and publications about equality and diversity.

A checklist for governing bodies

  • Have you considered your current composition in terms of, say, gender, age and ethnicity?
  • Do you need to improve the diversity of the membership?
  • What positive action could you take to broaden your recruitment of new members?
  • Annually monitor the actions to improve diversity and their impact on the composition of the governing body, and, if judged not to be effective, revisit your action plan.

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