Board Diversity – A Reflection, A Provocation

BEFS Policy & Advocacy Officer, Ailsa Macfarlane, reflects on points raised at BEFS recent event on Board Diversity in Public and Third Sector Organisations.

They say that ‘change is made by those who show up’.

The Board Diversity event attracted a small but engaged audience – we knew however, that we were preaching to the (already) converted.

The timing of the Board Diversity event was designed to reflect the new legislation around Gender Representation on public boards. This sets a hard quota for gender representation. Quotas are an issue where personally I have never been convinced in either direction, but I did find myself agreeing with panellist Jane Ryder (Chair, HES) when she said, “I’m not keen on quotas – but I know why we’ve given up waiting”.

My concern has been that quotas (for any protected characteristic) can undermine those who gain positions in their wake. If anyone wonders if you ‘only got the position to fulfil the quota’ – your skills, experience and purpose seem undermined before you’ve even started. However, an exceptionally pithy tweet to combat that very opinion appeared in my timeline recently:

Seeking diversity and inclusion doesn’t mean you’re also not seeking the most talented person for the job. And if you think prioritising diversity means you’re somehow de-prioritising talent, you are part of the problem. (@dascruggs)

It isn’t that there’s an easy answer; panellists were keen to stress that intersectionality and a broad debate are essential – we have to talk about everything at once, not in hermetically sealed silos of difference. We need to make time to listen, to hear – to have the difficult conversations that can result in change. These conversations can be had with positive intentions. Mistakes will be made as the clumsy shorthand of assumption reveals our unconscious bias; or perhaps reveals our own experiences and our starting point.  As long as there is a willingness to listen and learn about different perspectives we can progress.

With these thoughts and intentions – to make a space for the difficult conversations to exist – BEFS undertook to construct a dynamic panel of speakers to share their experiences with the audience. For the panel to give examples of positive changes in opportunity and governance; to discuss how practical changes to governance ‘traditions’ can make the process and the meetings themselves, far more accessible and inclusive. To enable conversations that encourage the changes we know the sector needs. When reviewing Member trustee diversity, we learnt that they are not reflective of wider society. More generally, research has shown that those under 30 are rarely found on Boards. Surely these missing voices have something to bring to the sector: a future vision, a perspective on governance and strategic direction that will add to the future story of a wide range of organisations. Those organisations that embrace diversity are more productive and more profitable. To encourage change in this area can really be a win-win.

Those who get off a delayed flight and arrive straight from the airport because they appreciate the topic, and their role as a trustee, are to be thanked; but they were not in the majority. When taking a straw poll of the room only seven of those attending were trustees (not necessarily related to BEFS).

We know that those who have already stepped-up and given their time to a myriad of organisations do care about the values and actions of the particular charity/ies with which they volunteer. Is it possible that having stepped-up, trustees are then happy to step-back? Volunteering on a Board is time consuming enough; the essential, onerous and often ‘boring’ governance work takes precedence over trickier, more nuanced issues? When at Board meetings are those present mindful that ‘in here’ (the Board room) may not reflect ‘out there’ –  be that: the workforce, the stakeholders, the consumers, the service users, and wider society?

And when we talk about difference, there was a question raised at the event to address the necessity of diversity of thought, as well as diversity of person. To assume that all of one group will have the same views is folly. Those with a similar background, education, life experience and career may have far more in common that two people who happen to have the same protected characteristics.

This bring us back to the start –  it’s not ‘change’ that’s made by those who show up, it’s ‘history’. Let’s encourage the sector to make sure that we are all making a history that reflects and includes everyone.