Resources Article

Diversity & Inclusion on Boards

Sue Woodford-Hollick OBE (Lady Hollick) is a businesswoman, former television journalist, and founding commissioning editor of multicultural programmes at Channel 4 Television.

I joined my first board in around 1989 – 30 years ago – as a trustee of a small contemporary dance company called Extemporary Dance (which no longer exists). I was recruited by ‘word of mouth’, where one of the trustees (all male and pale) was a friend who told the Chairman he thought I would be a good thing.

There was no recruitment process, no induction and no training.

I was the only woman on the board and the only woman of colour. ‘I knew nothing’ about the role or the legal responsibilities of a trustee and signed up for a trustee training course at the Templeton Institute.

‘Diversity’ was never mentioned or on the agenda. Since then I have sat on or Chaired numerous boards, mainly in the field of arts, human rights and international development, including English National Opera, Contemporary Dance Trust, Index on Censorship, Free Word, the Theatre Museum, Tate Members and of course Arts Council England. For much of that time I’ve been in the minority as a woman (less true now), and usually been the only woman of colour. Change isn’t happening fast enough.

I’ve always tried to speak out at meetings and consistently argue the case for board diversity and its advantages: organisations are happier places to work and perform better. Good organisations embrace diversity throughout the organisation, top down and bottom up. Diversity and inclusion are central to an organisation’s ability to attract, recruit and retain the best talent.

But I prefer to talk about ‘inclusion’ or ‘diversity and inclusion’. ‘Diversity’ has been overused in the last few years and is often seen as being only about race or gender, or even worse, about ticking boxes to please funders.

My dream board would be a dynamic, high functioning board, that should consist of a group of men and women, ideally in equal numbers, who between them have a wide range of skills and talents… people who are all passionate about the work of the organisation they lead and represent, and who don’t all speak with one voice. 

A committed, strong board should also reflect the complexity of the communities, clients and customers it aims to serve. A diverse board will also include people of different ages, races, and cultures; people of different sexual orientations, from different educational backgrounds and disabled people. That’s what life is like. Only recruit if people bring the skills and expertise the organisation needs in order to thrive.

It may sound easy, but I’ve often really struggled to put together and sustain a diverse board of competent skilled people with different views, who are prepared to challenge each other through robust dialogue.

So how do you build and maintain a diverse board?

Always start by doing a proper, thorough Skills Audit of the existing board. Unless you know what skills you have, and what’s missing, you can’t begin to look for new and different members. You also need ‘purpose’ and the ‘intention’ to change… the whole organisation needs to be on your side. Diversity has to be intrinsic to the organisation’s strategy and part of everyone’s DNA.

It’s hard to recruit good people of any type due to the big time commitment needed to serve on boards; it’s even harder to find people who feel they have been excluded or unwanted because they are not part of the ‘old boy/girl’ network.

Diversifying boards takes time and effort. You need to think way outside your comfort zone, find different networks, talk to your audiences, approach local organisations and professional associations, and advertise in unfamiliar places.

This can be done and it needs to be done urgently. We can’t wait another 30 years!

This article was originally published on the Cultural Governance Alliance website.

Themes Governance Inclusive Leadership Practice