- Aasa Marshall

Why diverse boards are rare and what to do about it

On a board of directors? At your next meeting, take a look around the table. Does everyone look and sound similar to you? If so, that may be a problem.

Not having a diverse board can negatively impact efficiency and quality of decision-making and weaken legitimacy. In fact, if you take a moment to consider it, the disadvantages are pretty easy to spot. For example, if everyone on a board has a similar background and perspective, it may be easy to agree ­— but it’s also easy to slip into groupthink.

Likewise, if everyone involved in decision-making has the same outlook and experience, potential problems or opportunities can be missed. Not fully understanding risk and opportunity can jeopardize the future of an organization. Throw some new perspectives into the mix, and the decision – while potentially harder to reach – will be stronger for it.

Decision-making isn’t the only positive aspect of board diversity. When your board is more representative of the community or market you serve, it increases the legitimacy of the organization. It can also increase the board’s understanding of its customer or user base, and that’s just good business.

Diverse boards are rare

Despite all the benefits of diverse boards, they remain rare. According to a study of 750 TSX-listed companies in 2016, only 12.6% of their board seats were held by women. Of those companies, 46% had no women at all, and 30% had only one. A survey of 200 companies in the US found that, in 2016, only 15% of new directors belonged to a minority, and the average age of directors was 63.

Of course, the obvious question is: if diverse boards are so great, why don’t we see more of them?

Part of the problem is the way board recruitment has traditionally been done. Often existing board members reach out to their personal networks and suggest people they know apply to join the organization. It makes sense that this would result in a fairly homogenous board – what might accurately be called an “old (often white) boys club.”

The top reasons given for boards not adopting a written board diversity policy were a concern that the policy would “compromise the principles of meritocracy” and that it “may not result in the best candidates being selected.”

Frankly, this is lazy at best. Not finding qualified women, people of colour, young people, etc. doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t interested – it suggests the board isn’t interested in change and the organization is potentially stagnant (or heading there).

Innovation requires disruption. Including diverse perspectives on a board can be key to introducing beneficial disruption, innovation and growth. But getting there means doing a bit of leg work and looking outside your usual networks and circle of friends and family.


How can you increase diversity?

Make a commitment to incorporating diversity and follow through. Create a diversity policy that can be acted upon. This could mean implementing quotas or targets, setting term limits to allow more frequent recruitment of new people, and ensuring the nominating committee seeks out diverse talent. Keeping diversity top-of-mind during the recruitment process can go a long way.

Boards can pay lip service to diversity, but if they go through the same process as they always have, nothing will actually change. To get new people, new approaches need to be tried.

This doesn’t have to be a complicated process – all you have to do is be open to change, look in new places and ask different people.

Cast a wide net

Don’t know where to start? Look around and reach out to networks and organizations you’ve never tapped into before. Look for online resources in your community (like the Business and Professional Women of Saskatoon’s Women on Boards portal).

Use the snowball method of reaching out to people and asking them to recommend someone they know, and so on. Be clear about your quest for more diversity, and the kinds of skills and experience you think are necessary for your board. Boosted posts through social media is another good way to reach specific audiences.

If you are from a small community, you probably already know people who would make a good addition. Approach them. Tell them why you think they could contribute. The reason people may not be involved already could simply be that they’ve never been asked.

Adjust your definition of “qualified” to align with goals

Clearly understanding your organization’s goals, as well as the skills and perspectives that could help reach those goals, should guide how you qualify potential board members and may help avoid personal biases. Tradition and personal networks, while important, should be used to reach new audiences and diverse perspectives, not necessarily familiar or “safe” ones.

Plus, just because someone has never been on a board before, or lacks decades of management experience, doesn’t mean they don’t have skills that could benefit your organization. Not everyone will have experience in the exact field in which the company or organization operates, but may have skills in law, finance, tech, marketing, or any number of useful sectors. Allow the organization’s goals to guide who is needed on the board, not tradition or personal biases.


Don’t stop at tokenism

The board’s job isn’t finished once it has recruited new people. For example, it may be tempting for an all-male board to recruit one woman, pat themselves on the back, and go about their business.

Not only is this tokenism rather than diversity, it’s important to think about the scenario from the new person’s point of view. It is often difficult to be a woman walking into a room of men, a person of colour at a meeting of only white people, a young person trying to express an opinion to a group of older, more experienced members.

Newcomers to a board need organization-specific training and orientation, but existing board members also need to consciously make room for them to contribute – beyond providing a chair at the table. Considering research shows women are interrupted more than men, speak less during meetings, and yet are perceived to speak more, it may take a concerted effort to ensure they can contribute meaningfully.

Adding diversity to a board should be an exciting, rather than onerous, task, and one that meets the needs and goals of the organization. As one CEO put it: “To my mind, it’s a little bit like assembling an orchestra. I know I need a bunch of different instruments; whether I have three of one and two of the other, or three of one and three of the other—that misses the point. It’s about how all of the instruments blend together.”