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Board Diversity, from recruitment to belonging

03 Nov 2022 | Kim Ansell As Advance HE publishes its Diversity of governors in higher education report, the second in the series, Kim Ansell reflects on the ‘Supporting Inclusive Boards’ initiative in 2021-22 and Advance HE plans to continue the important work of supporting inclusive Boards.

“You can't be what you can't see.” Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children's Defense Fund

It is vital for governing bodies to take on people who are unafraid to challenge the Board’s practices, mindsets, biases and experiences:    

“For effective leadership to enhance impact and sustainability, society needs to find a way to disagree with one another without being disagreeable. We need to get the best from each other, playing to our strengths and working well as a team. When people feel accepted rather than tolerated, when they feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, they optimise their collective performance.”  Tesse Akpeki, co-facilitator of the Advance HE Supporting Inclusive Boards community. (1) 

The Supporting Inclusive Boards (SIB) community convened governance professionals from small and specialist institutions in a series of developmental, online sessions to enhance and share thinking, noting the importance of the role of the governance professional in facilitating and implementing change.  

Tesse adds that, “The SIB community creates a safe place and space where governance professionals can do just that.” 

We set out to develop a safe and supportive community which would not only impact practice but also mind sets, confidence and agency. Throughout the programme we explored a golden thread from recruitment to belonging, thinking about new ways of working, learning from each other and sharing what works, what doesn’t work and creating conditions for success. 

The group reflected on the key stages of the Advance HE Toolkit and concluded that: 

  • when advertising board positions, institutions would benefit from finding ways to enable a diverse group of individuals to visualise themselves in the role; and that means reflecting on the use of inclusive language and finding ways to make the role attractive to the broadest possible range of candidates 

  • having a vision for Board diversity is really important, and institutions “are helped if they have this strategic intention overtly and unambiguously articulated.” They can then think about how they will successfully recruit people from different backgrounds. Challenging the Board about, ‘why a game-changing approach to diversity is needed’ is often the role of the Governance and/or Nominations Committees. (We will reflect further on this in our GDP event for governors in December.) 

  • with the tools we have to guide us as governance professionals, we could make better use of the skills matrix templates that we use to audit the skills and experience of the Board. Skills and diversity are not binary choices, on the contrary, we believe institutions and their Boards would benefit from exploring how the tool can be more useful if it becomes a ‘skills and diversity matrix’. 

We know from our Governance Effectiveness Reviews over the last year that many universities are increasing their complement of student governors from one to two, thus confirming our assertion in the Diversity of governors in higher education 2022 report that, “the youngest governors were expected to be student governors.”  

Figure 13 Age of governors by year, and all academic staff for 2020/21 

Graph showing age of governors by year, and all academic staff for 2020/21

The SIB community explored, ‘The Board Apprenticeship Schemes’ which are used at some universities. We heard that: 

  • recruitment of apprentices who otherwise would not have applied to be governing body members did in fact apply; and that apprentices offered a rich source of reflection, with some going on to be co-opted committee members or Board members 

  • the apprentice Board members were able to provide feedback to the chair with a completely different mindset and perspective 

  • their experiences were very different from the majority of existing governing body members. 

A sense of belonging is important for all governing body members, but especially so for Board apprentices. Making them feel as if they belong is really important; the apprentices should be encouraged to feel as though they are on a professional journey, not simply an observer in the corner. In other words, there should be no sense of a two-tier system.  

Jan Juillerat, Vice Chair of the Board at Cardiff University, says, “We wanted to take part in the Governance Apprenticeship Programme as a positive action to support our inclusion and diversity thinking, and learn about how inclusive our Board culture felt.  

“We had a rich experience, which culminated in the apprentice governor presenting at our culture away day, and we implemented feedback from their experiences as part of our induction and support for new governors. The apprentice also secured their own Board role during their time on the programme; something they said would not have happened if they had not been part of the programme.” 

It is clear from the Diversity of Governors report that the data we have and use to better understand Board diversity has its limitations: in particular, we are not able to distinguish the roles that those with diverse characteristics are in. But authentic and meaningful change will come from both a qualitative and quantitative approach to Board diversity and inclusion. We believe Boards are best-placed to make the most progress when they balance the conformance and performance aspects of the responsibilities and duties that their governors sign up to. 

Read Diversity of governors in higher education 2022 

Note 1. Invitations to join the community were offered in conjunction with GuildHE as part of our Connect Benefit Series 2021-22 project on Leading change through teams and networks

As part of our 2022-23 Member Projects look out for our second series of Supporting Inclusive Boards.   

Join us at the Governance Conference 2022 - Governing in the interests of students at BMA House, Central London, 24 November 2022   


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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