Has there been progress in board level diversity – and for who?
By Annie Makoff on 19 May 2022
It’s an issue which has been top of the board level agenda for decades, with companies taking steps to improve their senior-level recruitment drives and retention strategies, along with government-introduced quotas and ratios, but has there been any actual progress?
For Patrick Johnson, director of equality, diversity & inclusion at The University of Law, it depends on who you talk to. “Some boardroom voices will point to the great improvements that have been made, but women and ethnic minorities will say more needs to be done,” he explains. “It is fantastic to see an increase in women entering the boardroom. Unfortunately, most of these women also look the same. Intersectionality is important – we can think we are making progress but this is not being experienced by all women.”
In Johnson’s view, many groups of people from different ethnic minorities, social backgrounds as well as those from the disabled and LGBTQ+ communities are still not equally represented at board level. So where are we right now when it comes to board level diversity? We put the question to Johnson and other D&I professionals for their views.
Inclusion is moving at a glacial pace
“If the entire business landscape wished to enact tangible change in boardroom diversity, it would have happened by now,” says Ally Owen, award-winning activist and founder of Brixton Finishing School. “We’re still moving towards inclusion at a glacial pace. C-suites continue to wave the flag to the pale and the male – and it is this level that controls the pace at which businesses move towards goals.”
Owen points to stark creative industry statistics which she says, paints a ‘clear picture’ of a failure to deliver on the inclusion promise. 17 per cent of creative directors are female, less than 3 per cent of CEOs aren’t white and just 6 per cent of creatives are over 50 and mostly men. In Owen’s view, the issue starts at the bottom of the talent funnel, where there are issues around retention and inclusion. “How can we progress diverse talent to the top if we treat them badly and fail to create cultures that allow them to stay and grow? This deep-rooted apathy and laziness will mean that cultures won’t change unless businesses start to look in the mirror and commit to real transformative action.”
Some progress on gender and race diversity but not in other areas
Shivani Smith, partner at executive search firm Perrett Laver, who specialises in the appointment of executive and non-executive directors in the charities sector has seen an ‘increased focus’ on diversity and inclusion in recent years. “It is crucial that a wider range of inherent and acquired diversity characteristics are a part of the conversation, beyond ethnicity and gender,” she says.
As Patrick Johnson insists, boardroom diversity is ‘more than’ just women and ethnic minorities: it’s about thinking more broadly. “Have we seen progress in the boardroom of people from different social backgrounds, disabled people, the LGBTQ+ community?”
Smith takes the view that there’s been more progress on gender and race diversity because these characteristics are clearly visible. “In some ways, they’re the easiest ones to address – we can see progress being made in an obvious way,” she explains. “But there are more challenging areas of diversity which we also need to look at – not instead of, but as well. Yet with GDPR, we won’t always know which other rich and diverse characteristics people are coming through with – obviously you can’t compel people to share and disclose personal stories.”
Helene Usherwood, partner, executive search firm Anderson Quigley and who has specialised in the appointment of executive and non-executive directors in the NHS and regulatory bodies, agrees. “We still have far to go in achieving other areas of diversity at board level, particularly in representation of invisible markers of diversity such as religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background and disability,” she says. “These areas must be recognised with equal importance. By expanding our focus to include invisible differences, we shift the discussion from ‘how can we increase gender and racial diversity?’ to ‘do we have a variety of diverse perspectives to deal with complex problems and create innovative solutions?’”
More diversity of perspective and thought is needed
Smith believes that diversity of perspective and thought is still lacking on many boards. “We had a client who had great ethnic diversity on their board but they all had similar life experiences and had attended similar universities. It meant there was a real lack of diversity of perspective and thought and they wanted to change that.”
In Smith’s view, organisations themselves need to be explicit with their commitment towards genuine diversity both in their mission statements and how and where they advertise job vacancies to reach as many different people as possible.
“Companies need to be proactive and make more of an effort to reach different people, rather than waiting for different demographics to approach them,” she says. “They need to be clear that they are seeking people with different perspectives and life experiences and what they are striving to do as a company.”
As Usherwood puts it: “Ultimately, boards need to ensure they are truly representative of the communities they serve.”
View more d&i Leaders articles
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.