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With so many measures and initiatives, why is boardroom diversity taking so long?

Diversity in substance, not just in appearance, brings benefits to boards.

Business.
A diverse board can boost accountability. Photograph: Getty Images.

There has been plenty of talk about the need for greater board diversity in recent years. With so many measures and initiatives being touted, why is it all happening so slowly?

Diversity should be an attribute of a balanced and capable board and, in itself, is not a new concept. However, calls for more diverse boards have grown louder in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Against a backdrop of bank failures and bail-outs, concerns about executive pay and aggressive tax planning, the public have looked at company boards and taken the view that their shortcomings might be connected to a lack of diversity in board membership. And it is not just companies. Other bodies, including governments, have faced similar scrutiny. Board diversity has become an issue for mainstream governance.

But how does diversity improve a board, or company's, performance? Corporate governance has historically emphasised the need for a balance between executives and non-executives to ensure that boards have the skills, experience, independence and knowledge required to enable them to carry out their responsibilities effectively. This might not be enough. To achieve long-term business success, companies have to take a wider view on how they interact with the markets in which they operate, and meet a range of sometimes conflicting responsibilities. They have to achieve a business purpose, behave in a way that is acceptable; meet legal and regulatory requirements and be accountable for their activities. Having a diverse boardroom can help.

For example, it helps for the company to be in tune with its key internal and external stakeholders, and see business opportunities and threats through their eyes. Board diversity can help boards understand their customer, supplier, employer and other relevant perspectives better. As companies become more international, this adds another dimension.

In order to behave in a socially acceptable way, the board may wish to consider the message they send about their company - if members look like each other rather than like society, for example, this can undermine people's confidence. Furthermore, diversity encourages rigour in the boardroom. Although a tightly knit group of like-minded people, with common experiences can take decisions quickly and efficiently, there is always the risk of groupthink. The problems here are well documented. An over-riding objective of sticking together may also mean that common limitations and biases go unchallenged. Better decisions are made by a board with members who are prepared to consider a wider range of alternatives.

This is easier said than done. We know that there are practical challenges. A board cannot accommodate an endless number of people representing different stakeholder groups in order to mirror society at large. Also, having a diverse board does not automatically mean that diverse viewpoints will shape company behaviour and decisions. Board members need to work hard to enable a robust process that allows different views to be expressed, heard and considered. They will still need to work as a team, serving the interests of the company and sharing responsibility for its decisions. It will take effort and commitment by board members to develop a mutual respect for each other and to recognise the value of an open exchange of diverse views.

The pipeline issue is also receiving more attention today. Building a pool of diverse and talented individuals across an organisation is important and often more difficult than introducing diversity through board appointments. Some challenges have deeper roots in institutions and society more generally, and cannot be resolved by a company alone. For example, if certain groups are fundamentally disadvantaged within the education system, it will be difficult in the short term for companies to identify suitable members of those groups for board positions, or to make sure that they are properly represented in the company's talent pipeline. But then again, the diversity debate is giving us an opportunity to raise public awareness of such issues.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of board diversity, and a company needs to reflect on its business purpose, the society where it operates and the stage of development it has reached. It will also take a lot of effort for companies to find ways to take account of many different perspectives, while keeping the board a practicable size. Diversity in substance, not just in appearance, brings benefits to boards.