A diverse collection of colourful pencils.

Board diversity: developing a toolkit for professionals

Diverse boards are effective boards. Dr Matthew Andrews, University Secretary and Registrar at the University of Gloucestershire, seeks the views of governance professionals to help develop a new toolkit to support board diversification.

Board diversity is important

Board diversity is essential if a board wants to excel.

And in recent years our understanding of ‘board diversity’ has grown from the traditional concept of diversity in skills and professional background, to embrace diversity of personal characteristics: ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and more.

It remains critical that boards retain the older understanding of diversity, as we will continue to need governors with professional backgrounds of all types.

Yet, personal diversity is increasingly recognised as necessary if a board is truly seeking to add value and lead development at the highest level.

Board diversity is valuable

There is now ample research to show the value of board diversity.

The importance of board diversity was highlighted by Charlotte Valeur through her study into board diversification, for example. Valeur’s primary findings suggest that board diversification is a welcomed and valued experience for all parties.

Corinne Post and Kris Byron, writing in 2014, found that female board representation is positively related to a board’s two primary responsibilities: monitoring and strategy involvement.

The value of diversity on the boards of higher education institutions exists far beyond financial measures. Indeed, research by James Taylor and Maria de Lourdes Machado from the USA has suggested that to truly meet its mission statement and aims, a university must have a board that can represent the community it serves.

Jeffery Wilson found that governors from diverse backgrounds bring diverse approaches to planning and strategy which can have an immediate impact.

These and other studies show the value of diversity in board membership.

Board diversity is needed

Despite the advantages, Advance HE found that higher education boards in the UK do not reflect the diversity of thought and backgrounds of the students we teach, or the staff we employ. You can read their Diversity of HE Governing Bodies in the UK Report, 2020.

The latest figures from HESA, for example, show that only 5.7% of governors declare a disability, 10% are Black, Asian, Mixed or ‘Other’, and 42.3% are female.

The importance of diversity throughout an institution has become even clearer through the very recent Black Lives Matter movement, and the drive to decolonise the curriculum.

Governors from diverse backgrounds are critical as supportive voices. They can provide scrutiny to institutional actions around issues of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability amongst other things. To do this job effectively, we need greater diversity embedded into our board structures, and all governors to be allies for under-represented groups.

There is good research to show that effective boards are diverse boards, and that issues of diversity are increasingly given prominence in public discourse. Even so, governing bodies in our sector are not yet diverse.

So how can we improve this situation?

Improving board diversity

We can assume that most (if not all) boards want to increase their diversity.

There are significant gaps shown in almost all diversity indicators. Therefore, it is clear that universities and other higher education providers need additional, easy-to-access tools to enable them to diversify more effectively.

To that end, Advance HE and Perrett Laver have funded the University of Gloucestershire through its Collaborative Development Fund to develop a toolkit which will help governance professionals in higher education diversify their boards.

Our work will build on existing research, delving deeper into some of the critical issues, to support the creation of practical guidelines for boards making a conscious effort to diversify.

The aim is to produce a documentary guide, supported by short training videos, and a comprehensive suite of links to useful resources, covering each of five key stages:

  • Preparing your board for diverse recruitment
  • Developing a job specification that will help recruit governors from more diverse backgrounds
  • How to promote your role
  • Conducting inclusive interviews
  • Supporting governors through induction.

Share your feedback about board diversity

To complete this work, we need views and input from the sector.

We are therefore planning in-depth research with existing members of governing bodies, but we are starting with the views of secretaries and other governance professionals. This is a critical starting point as, despite the clear evidence that more progress is needed, there is a growing body of good practice in the sector.

On behalf of the research team – led by Dr Adeela ahmed Shafi, Associate Professor of Education and Council Member at the University of Gloucestershire – we would be grateful if you could complete our diversity survey before Friday 16 April 2021.

Your views will be invaluable as this work progresses.

Dr Matthew Andrews is the University Secretary and Registrar at the University of Gloucestershire.