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Do diverse boards guarantee diverse thinking?

17 Jun 2022 | Marion Fanthorpe Reflecting on Advance HE's Board Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit, and on recent work with a pan Wales group of Secretaries and Clerks, senior associate Marion Fanthorpe considers what more university boards can do to embrace all aspects of diversity and inclusion.

Do diverse boards guarantee diverse thinking?

Of course the answer has got to be no, although it sure helps. Nomination and governance committees are quite rightly looking hard at their predominantly white and homogenous boards and are finding ways to diversify their membership, but without a broader focus on equality, diversity and inclusion on the board agenda, having a wider range of people with protected characteristics risks tokenism and marginalisation. The good news is that boards can devise a myriad of ways of hearing diverse voices and considering the urgent and pressing diversity and inclusion matters within their university.

What can boards do to diversify their membership?

Fundamentally, the purpose of having a diverse board membership is to enable the board to understand and act on the needs and concerns of stakeholders to improve outcomes for all. Without becoming over mechanistic about it, each board needs its own sense of what a diverse board means in their context, informed by data on student, staff and local demographics. Often, student populations are more diverse than staff or local populations, so perhaps this could provide a more aspirational reference point for board composition?  

Diversity is now featuring more centrally in Nominations and Governance Committees’ succession planning. To my mind, one of the main inhibitors is an over reliance on specifying the seniority and length of previous executive experience required, as this tends to draw in older, white people moving towards the end of their careers, and thereby perpetuating the cycle of getting more of the same. Younger people and people in mid- career can bring high levels of expertise and skill, and they will come if the board can offer more flexibility in their meeting times and working practices.

Another potential inhibitor is geography. In the pan Wales Board Diversity Project we discovered that many boards, understandably, were keen to have members from the region, to represent the local character (and language), local needs and partnerships. However, due to the lack of local ethnic diversity particularly, this was also inhibiting their ability to find more diverse pools of potential members. Looking further afield, at least for some appointments, opens up the possibility of finding different skills, experiences and perspectives. And manageable expectations of in-person attendance, and extended use of virtual and hybrid working will practically support this.

One of the great insights from the Board Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit has been the concept of equality, diversity and inclusion as a competency, and therefore one that everyone and every board can aspire to develop. Specifying this opens the door for bringing in people who have either (or both) relevant lived experience and specific experience of working with EDI policies and initiatives. It also relieves the inappropriate pressure put on people to speak for, or be experts in their protected characteristic.  

How can boards diversify their thinking?

A secondary purpose of having a diverse board is to promote diverse thinking whilst avoiding groupthink. More balanced boards will definitely help, but with the best will in the world not every protected characteristic can be literally represented all of the time, nor should it. Boards must find more creative ways to ensure diverse voices are heard. Monitoring and analysing EDI data is standard, but can be supplemented with other ways of hearing and understanding others’ experiences and perspectives. Great examples include a presentation from students on recent findings from a survey on BAME students, a deep dive on mental health and resilience issues for staff and students, an estates walk around with people with disabilities, a meeting with local Muslim leaders on supporting Muslim students, a presentation from early career researchers on research opportunities and gender bias.

As we know boards are subject to statutory requirements and an expectation to provide assurance on equality and diversity matters. These are often fulfilled through monitoring data and EDI initiatives presented in annual equality and diversity reports, but it can be a challenge to answer the ‘so what?’ questions, and to focus a board and its committees on critical, cross-cutting equality, diversity and inclusion issues across the institution.  However boards can be more proactive in setting their own diversity and inclusion agenda, as it arises from their mission and strategic objectives, and their ambition to act on the needs of all stakeholders. The list of strategic issues that require an equality, diversity and inclusion lens is long - educational outcomes and awarding gaps, the needs of growing populations of international students, the inclusivity of new learning and teaching methodologies, student wellbeing and freedom from sexual harassment, equal pay and the gender pay gap and the diversity of executive teams and professorial ranks to name but a few. As one Welsh university committee realised even something as prosaic as a catering contract has significant EDI ramifications when you stop to think about it.

A virtuous circle

So, diverse boards are critical in achieving diverse thinking but cannot guarantee it, and there is so much more HE boards can do to hear diverse voices and engage with a fuller EDI strategic agenda. And fortunately there is a virtuous circle here. Boards that are having a vibrant and purposeful discussion on EDI issues are sure to appeal to a wider range of people with potential to make a significant contribution at the board table.

Marion Fanthorpe is an AHE Senior Associate and is in demand for governance reviews and consultancy projects within universities. Marion’s background is in strategic HR and organisation development within HE and within the wider public sector, and she now works as a consultant and non-executive director within education.

Bookings are now open for the GDP Board Diversity - The role of The governing body and Nominations Committees event.

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