Getting more women onto Boards, is there a shortcut?

Alice Johns, programmes and projects manager, Leadership Foundation, shares her insights ahead of the upcoming Women onto Boards events on what to do if you are thinking of taking the first step in applying to join a governing body. These events form part of the Leadership Foundation’s work to promote equality, diversity and inclusion within higher education.

Since 2013, the representation of women on university governing bodies has increased from 32 to 36 per cent and the number of chairs has risen from 12 to 19 per cent (Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, 2016). Although this does show improvement in the diversity of higher education boards, the rate of progress is slow. Much research has been published on the value of having a diverse workforce. Why Diversity Matters (McKinsey, 2015) found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians.

As the lead body for leadership, governance, and management within higher education, the Leadership Foundation is committed in working towards gender equality. Building on our work though the Aurora programme, the Women onto Boards initiatives aim to showcase the benefits and opportunities for women who may be thinking about serving as a governor on a higher education or non-executive body in other sectors. This serves as an important element of our work to equip leaders and governors to respond to contextual challenges in higher education.

In 2017, we journeyed to all four nations of the UK and Ireland, with our Women onto Boards series of events; welcoming 5 chairs, 15 speakers and 180 women. In 2018, we will do the same (see here for dates) hoping to reach more women who are looking at taking their first step into applying for a board position. So how can you position yourself to take this step and what are the key things we learnt from last year?

Start somewhere…

Asking to be an observer can be a good gateway if you’re not fully board ready, or a school board is a useful place to start. University committee positions can also build experience without the time commitment and lack of remuneration.

If you are planning to pursue a commercial board make sure it’s related to something you are passionate about and to your values. Remember board positions are a development opportunity but no one is born ‘board ready’.

… but plan ahead and prepare

Think about presenting your CV in a new way, as understanding any gaps in expertise the board may be in need of is key to success. Focus on your transferable skills (strategy, finance, regulation, HR) and the impact you have made within previous organisations. Highlight your connections and contacts, particularly where these are relevant to the institution and where you have cross sector experience.

Never underestimate the importance of networking! Research the organisation or institution and the makeup of the board, and the kinds of skills those sitting on it may already possess. Be prepared to invest time and check the board is functioning well before joining.

… and above all be persistent and passionate

Think of how you can make a difference and add value but be prepared to make several applications before you are accepted so persistence is key! Push yourself to go beyond your comfort zone. As women we are all familiar with imposter syndrome but be confident in your abilities and be tenacious. Displaying drive and passion could make the crucial difference between being selected for interview or not.

Above all, remember it’s about confidence, knowledge and contacts.  With all that has been in the news lately about the effectiveness of higher education governing bodies, there has never been a greater need for diverse and talented candidates. So whilst there is no shortcut, there are ways to position yourself that might make you more likely to get noticed.


For more information about the series including dates, location, pricing and how to book your place visit the Women onto Boards homepage

Find out the latest in governance, including recent publications and what’s next in the Governor Development Programme, via our website

More information about our women-only leadership development programme, Aurora, can be found here

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