A Different Way to Diversify Boards

A organization's effort to improve gender parity on boards uses a surprising and effective strategy---and one practically tailored for associations.

I like the way Helena Morrissey thinks. Who wouldn’t?

Morrissey, a British money manager, is the founder of the 30% Club, an organization whose mission is to increase the representation of women on corporate boards. If 30 percent seems like a modest goal, consider where things stand. According to a recent New York Times article on Morrissey, the percentage of women on the boards of Britain’s largest companies is 23 percent (on the upswing, the Times suggests, thanks to Morrissey’s efforts). In the United States, things are more dire: 17 percent.

So, back to that question I asked above: Who wouldn’t like this? Of course, it’s easy to support Morrissey’s point in the abstract—I support diversity on boards, so do you, and so does every CEO and executive director. But there’s something a bit more radical—and potentially unsettling for some—embedded in Morrissey’s strategy that’s worth considering, and is especially valuable when it comes to association work.

Encouraging women to smash the glass ceiling is great. So is encouraging men to bust a hole in the glass floor.

(By the way, associations do a little better on this front: According to ASAE Foundation research, the mean number of board members is 24 and the mean number of female voting members is seven, just a touch over 29 percent.)

The important tweak that Morrissey has made to such empowerment initiatives is that she’s taken the case directly to the people who can affect change: She lobbies the male executives and board leaders instead of compelling women on the lower rungs. Both have their place, certainly. But as I wrote a few months back about one association’s embrace of Lean In circles, men in privileged positions of power ought to do just as much thinking about their assumptions: Pushing up alone “risks presuming that women are forever the supplicants to power and men are forever the ones empowered with bestowing it.” Encouraging women to smash the glass ceiling is great. So is encouraging men to bust a hole in the glass floor.

How to do that? Morrissey’s strategy is to argue the business case for gender balance. As the Times reports, Morrissey

cites research from McKinsey, Catalyst, and Credit Suisse as evidence that more diverse boards provide better shareholder returns, because homogeneous boards often provide little fresh thinking about customers, risks, or outcomes. Not coincidentally, 30 percent representation is the level at which organizational psychologists agree a minority voice can be heard.

The 30% Club’s materials consistently stress that it’s working not to establish quotas but a pipeline, and the people who are most empowered to mentor and support young female professionals are the people who are already in that position.

Which brings us back to association boards. Last week, Joe Rominiecki at AssociationsNow.com wrote about the critical role that board members can play in membership; the association professionals he spoke with “all said they see the board as a valuable pool of ‘ambassadors’ for recruiting and engaging members.”

This goes beyond the typical role that gets assigned to board members, where they’re generally charged with succession planning—that is, finding more people to fill board seats—but aren’t formally encouraged to interact with rank-and-file members. But as the article points out, board members are well-positioned to be spokespersons—if not salespersons—for membership. As Select Registry CEO Jay Karen tells Rominiecki, “They are your champions. They love the organization the most, so they’re naturally going to be the most passionate people about the organization.”

Giving the leadership the opportunity to interact with members doesn’t just clue them into the issues and concerns that members face; it also offers them a chance to meet and cultivate the talent that can feed—and, yes, diversify—future boards. Bubbles, silos—whatever metaphor you choose—leadership often occupies it, and opportunities to broaden the range of members they meet may have the benefit of broadening the kind of leadership it has.

Armed with Helena Morrissey’s business case for diverse boards, there’s no reason leadership can’t make rethinking the leadership pipeline part of their outreach efforts. Everybody supports equality on boards, after all—so here’s one opportunity to put it into action.

What efforts does your organization take at the executive level to diversify its leadership? Share your experiences in the comments.

30% Club founder Helena Morrissey. (Handout photo)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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