How to Reset Your Board Diversity Efforts
Recent reports suggest that efforts to diversify boards are wobbling. Addressing the issue requires intentionality—and a conversation about what intentionality means.
Hope isn’t a strategy, as they say, but it can sometimes seem that way when it comes to board diversity.
Recent reports have put the spotlight on how women and minorities aren’t gaining new seats on corporate boards; a Heidrick & Struggles survey found that companies are favoring board members with past executive experience, which reduces the pool of first-time and diverse board members. Meanwhile, another report finds that Latinos have been shut out of the boardrooms of major corporations. One reason for that may be that organizations’ efforts to diversify their boards have been more reactive than intentional, and more interested in optics than truly diverse leadership. As board expert Julie Daum told the Los Angeles Times last month: “Are we going to say, ‘I’m blond. Now we need a person who has dark hair in the the room because blonds have a different experience’”?
The Heidrick and Struggles report stresses the importance of keeping conversations about diversity on the table: “Aside from broadening the talent pool for future board positions, it’s important that companies ramp up their focus on improving diversity in their executive leadership teams—particularly for roles that more often lead to CEO or board positions.”
How to do that? A recent report from the Women’s Nonprofit Leadership Initiative suggests a few possible paths. The study, Closing the Gaps, explores efforts among educational and healthcare nonprofits in the Philadelphia area, and identified a few bright spots: Women trustees and trustees of color have increased between 2019 and 2022, but diverse board chairs are rare, and some boards remain exclusively white.
Beyond being more mindful in the recruitment process, the report also recommends taking a look at board practices that can stand in the way of progress: “Are your terms too long? Have you considered term limits? Do you conduct regular board assessments?” Moreover, it’s important to develop an inclusive atmosphere for board members, lest that work on the pipeline come to nothing: “Ensure that your board is a place where all members feel comfortable voicing their ideas and that all voices are heard.”
The defining feature of organizations where diversity initiatives worked was intentionality—that is, a determination not just that there is a gap to close, but that it would take concrete steps to achieve it. The report spotlights a host of steps one nonprofit university took: more active recruitment for the board, including students and faculty as trustees, and paying more attention to the pipeline—who would be members of committees that generally lead to board positions.
The Heidrick & Struggles report characterizes the trend in boards as a retreat borne of anxiety—concerned about inflation, shifts in technology, and global crises, organizations have decided to stick with what they know. Expertise matters, of course. But in challenging times, broadening the range of people and ideas you include makes good sense. The report notes that companies need “fresh voices around the table, including those who can challenge the status quo, including on a temporary or ad hoc basis.” Smart organizations might be a little anxious about the future, but the solution isn’t narrwoing who gets to plan for it.