Skip to main content

Encouraging Diversity on Boards

Encouraging diversity on boards

Encouraging Diversity on Boards

Following on from research we had previously conducted, we asked 51 Board Chairs and University Chancellors how they rated their board in terms of diversity equality; specifically, in relation to representation of gender, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and indigenous representation. Of this group, only 12% believe that an important board function is to encourage and maintain diversity within their respective organisations.

What became evident from this survey is that one of the issues may be the information around helping to improve diversity amongst boards may be limited; or not necessarily being made available to Board Chairs. To continue our commitment to diversity, we have collected a number of resources that may be useful for Boards to increase their awareness and help increase their consideration of importance where diversity is concerned.

Our Community, have released helpful advice for not-for-profit and community groups to guide them to achieve a more diverse board. It is succinct and beneficial for any organisation looking to increase their board diversity. In summary, they break down into six steps, how a board can become more diverse. The six steps are:

  1. Build commitment
  2. Make sure you’re doing it for the right reason
  3. Articulate your commitment
  4. Examine your process
  5. Conduct a search
  6. Ease new member into the role

The Australian Institute of Company Directors are well known for their commitment to increase the number of women in board positions through their 30% Club project; providing regular progress here. Their advocacy has done a lot for gender diversity on ASX200 Boards. Another leading advocacy group for gender diversity is Women on Boards who have not only helped to support and promote women but also provide resources for cultural and gender diversity on boards. They have created a Cultural Diversity Working Group to address barriers to opportunity, with their key areas of focus being:

  1. Collating data & diversity facts, telling stories and collaborating with bodies in Australia who act and promote cultural diversity, to enlarge the influence of our collective action and accelerate progress.
  2. Influencing and raising awareness to increase understanding and promote a bias to action; including creating opportunities for culturally diverse women to connect, network and interact with decision makers.
  3. Creating a mentorship program promoting diverse women into leadership roles in Australia.

We recently spoke to two senior indigenous academic leaders, asking each of them how they feel indigenous representation on boards could be improved. 

Faye McMillan; Director of the Djirruwang Program at Charles Sturt University

This is a really complex environment because boards are there for multiple purposes. Understanding what is the role of a board director is really critical in understanding the expectations of the individual. Having said that, often boards are a skills-based board and aren’t looking for representation. It’s looking at a skills matrix of, all the skills of the directors and what they bring to the organisation’s ability to deliver on its vision and its purpose. But I do think we have opportunities to give more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples learning to provide that space where positions do become available.

In the last few years, we’ve actually seen some organisations go down the route of changing their constitution with regards to their board’s makeup and including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as an essential part of their board. But again, it comes down to more community-driven. When you’re talking about the ASX companies and large institutions such as health care providers, universities and research institutes, it’s a very difficult space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to get into.

The flipside to that is that there are so few people that possess the skills and knowledge in those very specific areas that would also allow them to walk away and feel that they have had significant contribution rather than just a tokenistic approach to having people on the board. It’s not a one size fits all, which I think goes back to what we frequently say to governments that are ultimately responsible for the funding of these boards, that we can assume homogeneity exists because what we know is it doesn’t. Whilst there may be similarities that can be drawn upon, we still need to be nuanced, to be responding to the needs of those people who the services are done or are put forward.

The other part is the recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do bring, not just their skill set of being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and that’s where on boards where the skills matrixes is an important part, it actually becomes another tool in their repertoire to sit alongside the others. If I use my own example of sitting on the Murrumbidgee Local Health District Board, that’s a state-based board and state-run. But there are very specific things that happen in the Murrumbidgee LHD, that wouldn’t happen in the Sydney LHD. My appointment, there was a recognition of my clinical skills as a pharmacist. It was the recognition of my skills, having been on previous boards, but also as an Aboriginal person, but also as a consumer of those services who is Aboriginal as well. It’s a multifaceted approach to board appointments that I do think really needs to be considered to ensure that the representation there is truly reflective of the people in which those boards are meant to be in service to.

Adrian Miller; Deputy Vice-President of Indigenous Engagement at Central Queensland University

I feel the effects of this quite often. I sometimes sit on many boards and I’m the only indigenous person sitting there. The challenges are quite often that most of the board aren’t culturally appropriate, sensitive, or informed. Therefore, when you’re the only board member or committee member that say, do you pick your fights or your challenges or you have confrontations, absolutely. You can’t do it at every whim of it because ultimately you’ve got to progress an agenda that’s hopefully beneficial to people. But at the same time, it is challenging sitting there and being the only one there.

Building the capacity around governance training is absolutely crucial, but also building the capacity of boards to be culturally informed is also really important. It’s just not about having, for example, a quite senior board saying, I think we need indigenous representative, it’s not just tapping someone on the shoulder. But I think the board needs to be prepared for the difficult conversations that board members might face or the challenging conversations that can’t be dismissed. There’s an equal balance of capacity building that needs to happen. It’s not just about burdening one or two individuals on a board, to say you represent the indigenous perspective tell us all about it, rather than the whole board needs to come up with an intellectual position on how to do that.

I think there’s definitely an appetite for that. I think there’s a lack of good quality consultants that can do that. And there’s a business opportunity for someone to do that kind of training. But I think they need to be quite a talented person to do it.

It’s not an easy role to do both. But at the same time, I think there’s an opportunity. I know that I’ve engaged with some consultants who are absolutely amazing about punching through some of those verbal challenges at the beginning and some of the intellectual challenges to build the capacity of non-indigenous force. I’ve seen that happen very successfully with some talented people, and think they’re completely overworked because they’re so good.

So there is an opportunity, but there’s also a gap of talent to do that kind of thing. Hopefully someone maybe even listening to this might have the thought to do that kind of work, but it’s certainly needed. I don’t think it’s just for First Nations people, It’s what I think could build the capacity of boards to understand. A multitude of cultural perspectives, because we don’t just live within a monoculture in Australia, multiple languages, multiple cultures that all contribute to Australian communities.

We also spoke to two senior healthcare Chief Executives, to how the companies and boards that they have worked with manage diversity.

Tracey Burton; Executive Director Uniting NSW.ACT

At Uniting, as part of the Uniting Church, we have an ambition of welcoming everyone exactly as they are. Diversity and inclusion is part of our DNA. But it doesn’t just come by people wanting it to be there, you actually have to put a structured response around it. This morning, I spent several hours in our Diversity and Inclusion Summit. Using Zoom, we had over 200 people online really engaging with our strategy that’s just been launched and endorsed by our board and indeed by the church. It has ambitious goals and targets around training, resources to support people to feel safe. One of the lovely things that was said this morning is everybody’s different, it’s just in whatever way. That difference is actually an asset because there’s a richness in that diversity that you can bring to bear and enhance your service, or if you’re operating a business it enhances your business. There are statistics out there that the evidence is diversity on a board, for example, will lift the performance of the organisation. You have to deliberately set about doing it and put goals in place and have action plans to make it happen.

Christine Kilpatrick; Chief Executive Officer Melbourne Health

I think everyone is trying to address, be mindful of, and see the advantages of acknowledging diversity and embracing diversity. It’s changed a lot in the last 20 years, and quite dramatically in the previous 10 years. The changes I think are that we are open about it and willing to address it. We acknowledge that the differences in all of us make us unique and make places like the Royal Melbourne Hospital such a wonderful organisation with ten thousand people. Many people are very different, some people are very similar, but they all bring a different aspect to the organisation.

But the other side is that patients are diverse too. If we don’t have a diverse workforce, then we are going to struggle to be able to respond in an appropriate way to our diverse patient population. So, the needs of patients, the wishes of patients and what is important to a patient, is very different in one group than it is in another. I think as a profession and as a healthcare professional, I think we have struggled a bit with that. We struggle to understand that, but I think with a much more patient-centred approach, we are beginning to understand. We still have a long way to go, but I think we are starting to understand that much better.

Leave a Reply