News & Insights

POSTED Thursday 09-09-21

What it means to have Diversity of Thought on Boards

‘Diversity’ is a word whose politics can be controversial; for some it represents a welcome change from the monotony of the types of people who generally have power and positions of authority: white, heterosexual, middle-aged (and at least middle-class) men. For others, it’s a buzzword that privileges the superficial characteristics of race, gender, sexuality, and class of any given candidate over their suitability or skills. But it’s possible to disrupt the former monotony without lapsing into the latter superficiality.


Rather than conceptualising diversity as a purely aesthetic change, in which board members – by way of quotas – are selected in such a way as to ‘look good’ or ‘look varied’ (by including different genders, ethnicities, etc.), it is important to recognise these identity categories as producing different thoughts, experiences, journeys, ideas, and outcomes. Because our world is gendered, women will often have different experiences than men; and because race often informs how someone is treated, for better or (more often) for worse, their insights are key in providing a board with a multitude of different perspectives. This ‘diversity of thought’ is not mere political correctness, but a genuine benefit to any board looking for unique approaches to problems, a greater sense of social equality and justice, and a more flexible and diplomatic atmosphere to work in.


Diversity’s significance is on par with its controversial standing, and those who see the benefits are continually frustrated at the lack of progress. Diversity’s detractors characterise it as a ‘box-ticking’ exercise, a weak bureaucratic attempt to appeal to ‘woke’ thinkers and critics. But the reality is that a diverse board will have diverse ideas, and this goes beyond the surface of bureaucratic documentation or of skin colour. A variety of ideas should always be welcome on boards whose role in practical and strategical planning requires complex levels of problem-solving. Furthermore, such diversity is a requisite for boards looking to represent their service-users: a charity board for domestic abuse survivors, who are overwhelmingly women, will benefit immensely from having women who understand why this treatment is often so gendered. And even further, having representatives from different ethnicities will have insights into the specific challenges their communities face when dealing with the problem of domestic violence. Not only is there a benefit to the charity; for board members too, these benefits are a two-way street. Board members are the most engaged and successful when they have a personal connection to the work they’re doing, and with such success comes opportunities to advance careers as well as ensuring service-users are getting the best experience out of the board and/or charity.


Some may retort that if women, POC, etc. are so valuable on these boards, why is it that they don’t seem to go for these positions? They take it as evidence that these groups are either uninterested or naturally unsuited to positions of authority. The reality is not so. It is more likely that it is up to boards to find people than vice versa, and if a bias already exists towards a certain kind of leadership (predominantly white, male, middle-class, middle-age) then those are the kind of people who will generally get selected, even if unconsciously. Further, with this bias firmly established, there is less of a welcome atmosphere for these groups – especially if they have dealt with discrimination in a professional environment before – which means boards don’t often realise they have to go the extra mile to ensure these groups feel welcome and valued. Without this support, there is an understandable hesitancy that, as has been the case before, these groups will not be listened to. It takes monumental effort to undo the generations of discriminatory biases we have internalised subconsciously, and to recognise that we unfortunately are not on an even playing field. This is not a call to pander or coddle certain groups – certainly being on a board should be challenging – but it should be supportive also, in order to fully reap the benefits of having diversity of thought.


A category that often gets left out of this conversation is that of age, and in particular, ‘young trustees’ (generally in the 18-30 age bracket). The name itself is a little controversial as it seems to distinguish certain board members for their age alone, and, depending on your perspective, appears to call out their inexperience. But rather than seeing young trustees as a liability, or as a drain on time and resource, they too provide unique perspectives: a diversity of thought. If a board member is in this age bracket, then it is very likely to be their first role; obviously there is a level of inexperience there that puts them at a disadvantage in some areas. But equally, they can bring dynamic, new ideas and fresh perspectives that are so valuable to any board. While they may need support from the board, they more than make up for it with an energy and enthusiasm that can bring new life to a board’s atmosphere and strategy-making. Furthermore, generational perspectives may also be key depending on service-users, and just as before, the diversity they bring in terms of insights can result in better representation of who the board is actually working with. Lastly, although they may need extra support, becoming a board member is a fantastic learning experience for young people and they will benefit immensely from being part of the team; it’s a win-win-win for boards, service-users, and young trustees alike.


If you’re interested in becoming a board member – especially if you are from an underrepresented background – then please do not hesitate to contact Debbie Shields at Boards are always looking to expand their horizons and your perspectives, experiences, and insights could be essential.