Securing Board Diversity

Dr Matthew Andrews, University Secretary and Registrar at the University of Gloucestershire, makes a case for diversity on university boards, and offers advice to those responsible for institutional governance in their efforts to increase diversity across all the protected characteristics.

The Case for Diversity

It is probably a safe assumption that the governing body of every UK university has securing board diversity somewhere on its agenda. One possible reason, for English institutions at least, is that HEFCE’s Equality and Diversity Objectives for 2016-17 includes an objective around actively seeking to promote greater diversity on university governing bodies, including a target of 40 per cent for the proportion of women on governing bodies (i.e. gender-balanced boards) by 2020. HEFCE also aim to encourage progress toward greater ethnic diversity and across other protected characteristics.

This specific objective is of course just one aspect of the general ‘public sector equality duty’ placed on universities by the Equality Act 2010 to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation; advance equality of opportunity between people who do and do not share a protected characteristic; and to foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not share a protected characteristic. Governing bodies need to have ‘due regard’ to this duty.

Legislation and Funding Council directives are only part of the story, however, for encouraging board diversity is not simply about avoiding the statutory stick but embracing the effectiveness carrot. Diversity is not only about social justice (important though that is, and perhaps all too often over-looked) but about good business sense. The results of a well-known research project undertaken by the management consultants, McKinsey & Company, for example, looked at the impact of boardroom diversity on business performance. This analysis found a statistically significant relationship between a more diverse leadership team and better financial performance: companies in the top quartile of gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have financial returns that were above their national industry median, while companies in the top quartile of racial/ethnic diversity were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median.

There are also some success stories. The Women Count: Leaders in Higher Education 2016 report found that a third of all governing bodies are now gender balanced compared to just a fifth in 2013. However, some governing bodies in higher education have far better female representation than others: the percentage of women governors ranged from 7 per cent to 59 per cent. There is still much left to do.

Approaches to Securing Diversity

Given such statutory obligations, moral imperatives, and good business sense it is perhaps surprising that there are not more case studies available to guide those responsible for institutional governance in their efforts to increase board diversity across all the protected characteristics. In the absence of more detailed support, however, the following suggestions may help those seeking to secure greater diversity on their board.

  • Define the benefits of being a member of your governing body. When securing the services of talented individuals from any background some case for getting involved is needed, but this is perhaps especially true when seeking to engage those who come from backgrounds who have not previously readily seen the benefits of becoming a governor.
  • Use all possible channels to secure expressions of interest from a more diverse range of individuals. This includes ensuring your vacancies are seen in relevant listings, such as Women on Boards, the Equality Challenge Unit, and Stonewall. Some institutions have found success through the use of head hunters and would recommend this route too.
  • Approach individuals directly. Some institutions have suggested their best results in improving representation were through simply making a direct approach to an identified individual. The best way to find such individuals was through the active use of contacts, including through contacts of contacts. Seeking input from staff across the institution can also be beneficial, including building a better understanding of where external individuals already volunteer their support to the university.
  • Make the effort to build a pipeline of potential board members. Growing your own talent pool can also help increase board diversity. This may be achieved by making more use of co-opted positions on governing body sub-committees, perhaps including short duration appointments, or through more formal schemes such as Board Apprentice.

Overall, the common theme from those institutions which have achieved greater diversity on their board is the need to be proactive: simply advertising vacancies in different places will be of limited benefit. A consistent and sustained effort using multiple channels, with strong support from the Chair, is likely to be the best route to success.