Diversity in Public Boards

Celia Sweeney, Equalities Manager with Historic Environment Scotland, shares the discussion and insights from BEFS Diversity in Public Boards event on 20th February 2018.

This event was perfectly timed as it followed the success of the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill. The effect of which will be to create a statutory gender representation objective for Scottish public boards.

The three speakers: Beltus Etchu Ojong (Next Step Initiative); Talat Yaqoob (Equate Scotland and 50:50 Campaign) and Jane Ryder (Historic Environment Scotland) are all practiced Board Members or Chairs and were invited to offer their individual perspectives.

The Speakers

Beltus Etchu Ojong began the panel conversation highlighting the lack of visible diversity from within the African community on Boards and in employment, and shared the experience of the African Tenants Forum, which created a route for the community to access information and be able to influence decision making. In terms of employment, he talked about the Next Step Initiative, which is a positive action training programme to create routes into employment where there is under-representation from the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic community.

Talat Yaqoob continued the panel conversation highlighting the work of Equate Scotland to encourage women in the Science, Technology and Built Environment sectors. Examples of support highlighted included the creation of a women student network as well as CPD for women working in the sectors. Progress has been made in civil engineering and she is keen to understand the why and how this is working, in order to share learning across other sectors; so perhaps opportunities for specific sector research to uncover the learning from this change. Talat is also Chair of the 50:50 campaign and for her, the Bill provides for more outreach in order to create ‘routes to widen the participation on Boards’. It also places a responsibility on Boards to influence the structural and other factors which can prevent people from coming forward. She stressed the importance of intersectionality; women are not a homogenous group. Women are shaped by influences arising from age; disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic experience and therefore it is important to look at all women. Talat talked about the unintended consequences which can arise for businesses, which fail to take into account women’s issues/needs. She also emphasised the positive business case, leading to better decision making, business improvement and positive reputation.

Jane Ryder wound up the panel conversation by extending the definition of diversity to that of considering the need to have an effective Board, which was able to demonstrate the necessary skills footprint as well as providing a vehicle for different voices/views and perspectives. There is a need for Boards to be conscious about all-round views and how to get them. Some of the barriers to inclusion were practical and she cited the lack of hearing induction loop facilities; the timing of meetings, which create difficulties for widening the demographic, and the need for support structures to create a talent pipeline. By way of example, Jane cited the initiative between the Scottish Government and Standard Life, which HES is engaged with and supports the opportunities for women to be co-opted onto a Board Committee to gain experience and insight into Board functions.

The Discussion

Many of the audience questions pointed to potential activity which should be considered to promote more involvement. I’ve highlighted a few to offer a flavour of the discussion.

Board Meetings often take place in the day and/or evening – one questioner suggested employers being encouraged to release people during the day. This made me think about Corporate Social Responsibility, which is often linked to employer’s charitable support or encouraging volunteering, and perhaps this could be a vehicle through which employees could be supported, who are interested in sharing their skills and developing new ones within the context of a civic society.

Using language and changing the narrative to attract people to apply for positions – the questioner shared their experience of using positive equal opportunities language in advertising, which had the effect of broadening and enhancing the interest from a wider pool of people. This was a useful reminder that language can attract as well as detract.

Communication style – here the panel replied to the questioner on a number of levels. From the role of the Chair, it is important to illicit ‘all round’ views and to be skilled in ways to achieve this across the Board. Panel members shared the importance of ‘being heard’ and managing ‘intellectual theft’; as illustrated by the cartoon. Written communication is a format where all the speakers acknowledged that there is a heavy emphasis and that part of the role involves significant reading and preparation for meetings.

Board outreach – the panel acknowledged that one of the effects of the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill will be to encourage more outreach and Boards to get involved in creating ways for this to happen. This touched on earlier references from the speakers on forums/advisory panels presenting opportunities as a talent pipeline. There was a sense too that such forums/advisory panels helped to demystify what happens at a Board and what is involved in being part of a Board.

Having the right Skills – this is important as many Boards may look for specific skills e.g. Financial, Performance and/or People Management, or they may be looking for broader skills e.g. leadership; taking strategic direction. It is important not to allow ‘unconscious bias’ to shape the view of what and who makes a leader. Bias should not influence any assessment of competence and ability as women from minority ethnic; disabled and LGBT+ communities don’t lack the relevant qualifications, experience and aspiration to sit on boards. Understanding and recognizing that we all have bias is important and consciously challenging ourselves contributes to fair decision making and influencing change.

In the closing remarks, an observation was made on the audience profile; there were significantly more women than men in attendance. This chimes with similar discussions on encouraging women in senior workplace positions; the curiosity and interest outweighed the audience in favour of women there too. This is changing however, from a discussion which recognises that diversity is the right thing to do, to one which knows it is good for business and the opportunities it brings to learn and grow from others, to ensure all round views are captured, to enhance decision making. It fills the talent gap as well as being good for society as a whole and creates the visibility for more women to come forward knowing their voices are encouraged. Lessons and learning which translates across into public boards and the wider civic society sphere.

There has undoubtedly been a ‘big conversation’ leading up to the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill and this conversation now needs to move within public boards. The research and available data tell us that there is still a way to go, which is why the 50:50 objective is needed to stimulate action.

Measuring where we are with where we want to be will resonate with the new millennial generation, who are tuned into the values of equality, diversity and inclusion as an important part of their employment choices. There is a growing expectation that this is mirrored in other business, life and social interests. Having a focus on equality, diversity, inclusion and fair representation seems to me to be the cornerstone for organisations who want to make sure that they continue to grow and meet the needs of their diverse customers, stakeholders and partners.