Leadership

An Active Approach to Board Diversity

By / Nov 17, 2019 (Prostock-Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Board diversity is still a challenge at nonprofits and for-profits alike. Solutions will require actively thinking about strategic needs—and noticing the people raising their hands to help.

When it comes to boardroom diversity, organizations have listening-toured, mentored, leaned in, consulted out, legislated, and otherwise tried to become more inclusive. What do we have to show for it?

Less than you’d hope.

The sixth annual edition of Deloitte’s Women in the Boardroom report shows that gender parity in corporate governance is still a long way off around the world. And the United States is only making smallish strides: According to the report, only 17.6 percent of board seats are held by women, up from 12.2 percent in 2014, and women board chairs are even more rare—4.4 percent in the current study, up 1 percentage point from 2014. (Associations Now’s Ernie Smith recently summarized the data points.)

Without strong, proactive leadership from the board chair and nominating committee, some boards will continue to bring in people like themselves.

The disparity persists in spite of increased efforts to encourage companies to diversify their leadership ranks: The report notes that Illinois and California have passed legislation to promote inclusion, and multiple states have introduced similar bills. (Maryland’s legislature, for instance, considered a bill that would require women to occupy at least 30 percent of all nonprofit and corporate board seats.) Barring any systemic legislative effort to force the issue, however, organizations will be left to their own devices for some time to address the problem.

And the problem, by the way, is not exclusive to corporate boards: According to one recent study, fewer than half of nonprofits have made efforts to improve board diversity, even though a majority say they’re dissatisfied with their boards’ diversity. But like any knotty issue an association faces, it requires an acknowledgment of the problem and a sustained plan of action to address it.

Michele J. Hooper, an executive who’s served on multiple corporate boards, describes what such a plan can look like in a Q&A in the Deloitte report. “Many boards are now looking two or three years out to identify the skills their board will need along with a pipeline of potential candidates,” she says. “Then they spend time cultivating those people, engaging with them, and determining whether and how they might fit. It takes a proactive board, nominating committee, and CEO to do that, but it works.”

It’s notable that Hooper’s recommendation doesn’t lead with looking for candidates who reflect gender, racial, and/or ethnic diversity. The priority is to identify the skills the board needs; everything else proceeds from there. An honest reckoning with needs, in theory, opens a nominating committee to a more diverse talent base—or prompts it to make efforts to diversify its talent base.

But Hooper isn’t pretending that’s easy. She acknowledges that biases, both unconscious and conscious, complicate the process and that “without strong, proactive leadership from the board chair and nominating committee, some boards will continue to bring in people like themselves.”

And even so, she adds, people from underrepresented groups may still need to make a bit of a noise about themselves. “Gain visibility,” she advises aspiring board members, by doing things like taking on speaking engagements, joining associations, and taking on coaching opportunities.

You almost certainly have members doing exactly that among your ranks. The challenge for association boards is to  step up and acknowledge those members, then help them develop the capacities that will make them valuable board members. You can’t assume they’ll do it on their own: Two associations that have successfully diversified their boards made a point to directly invite potential candidates to the office and events, to better understand their goals and see where they might match with the organization’s.

I’m optimistic enough to believe that no organization actively decides it doesn’t want gender parity or other kinds of fair representation on their boards. But passivity is what’s brought most boards to their current state. Changing that will require that leaders treat board diversity as a strategic goal like any other—and taking the decisive actions that any strategic priority requires.

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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