Portal to a more diverse future?

Photo montage of diverse faces

Higher education is waking up to the reality that diversifying governing boards will be imperative to the future success of universities. Ahead of the launch of the Board Vacancies portal, Jenny Tester, Project Associate for the Board Diversification Project at the Leadership Foundation discusses the diversity case for increasing the transparency of university board vacancies.

The Parker Review and the Davies Report have shone light on the lack of BME and female representation on boards in FTSE 100 companies. These reports, and the narrative surrounding them, challenge businesses, executive search firms and industries to take action to improve board diversity without the use of enforced quotas.

At a time when the cultural climate is one of action against discrimination, with high profile topics such as the gender pay gap and the #MeToo movement dominating the headlines, the opportunity for advancing diversity is unparalleled. In higher education, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) has set a target of 40% female representation on boards by 2020. Last month Scottish legislation was passed requiring public boards, which includes universities, to comprise 50% women by 2020.

According to the report Women Count (Jarboe, 2016) women make up 36% of boards and 19% of Chairs (up from 32% and 12% respectively). In order to meet Hefce’s target on gender alone, the pace of female appointments to board positions needs to increase significantly over the next year. Although much of the current focus on diversifying boards has centred on increasing BME and female representation, the case for diversity should be viewed through a much broader lens.

Diverse perspectives, expertise and experiences strengthens the effectiveness of governing boards, combating unconscious bias and groupthink, enabling governors to interrogate the HEI with the benefit of a breadth of knowledge and experience, and inspiring a future generation from diverse backgrounds to get involved. Ahead of the Leadership Foundation’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat, Simon Fanshawe explored how diversity can be advanced through cultural considerations in this recent blog post.

Universities are being urged to reform widening participation – increasing student representation from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities and geographical regions. As the focus shifts to put the student at the centre of higher education, with tax-payer and student return-on-investment central to the debate, pressure will grow for governing bodies to mirror the diversity of the student body and communities they serve.

The challenge

Despite goodwill in higher education, and a recognition of the need for change, the reality of recruitment practices for board appointments often results in the appointment of ‘the usual suspects’, typically from a narrow demographic. A recent survey conducted by AHUA and the Leadership Foundation found over 50% of board vacancies are not publicly advertised, relying on the networks of the Chair and board members to identify suitable candidates. Although this can be an effective way of securing strong candidates who would have otherwise not considered a university board appointment, it does narrow the pool of candidates to those in the board’s immediate network and risks marginalising those beyond.

Potential candidates who have not built networks in higher education therefore lack the necessary visibility and are less likely to be made aware of opportunities. Couple this with the tendency to hire in the image of self, when only 19% of Chairs are female, and the result is a hiring norm which perpetuates rather than tackles inequality. Where vacancies are advertised, their placements range from newspapers which target a certain readership to higher education recruitment pages which lack the visibility to candidates outside the higher education sector. Higher education now needs to make tangible changes to achieve board diversity. As board recruitment processes can last months, in order to meet Hefce’s target we need to take action now or female representation will fall short by 2020.

Possible solutions

In order to attract a more diverse pool of candidates, there needs to be an increase in the transparency and accessibility of vacancies. For those considering a board level appointment in higher education, a central hub to locate vacancies will serve to increase the transparency of board appointment processes and send a message of inclusivity and accessibility to candidates from diverse backgrounds.

As part of a broader project aimed at diversifying boards in higher education, the Leadership Foundation, in collaboration with the Committee of University Chairs, is piloting a board vacancies portal aimed at providing a central repository of board vacancies across the sector. Not only will the portal provide a central space for those considering board appointments in higher education to locate vacancies, it will also draw new talent to the sector through a series of partnerships with networks and organisations seeking to support diversity. The portal is currently being trialled with a select number of opportunities, with a view to launching sector-wide in September 2018.

The portal is only one strand of the Board Diversification Project, funded by Hefce, Hefcw and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland, which includes practical, related initiatives to support greater diversity within higher education boards and those applying for board roles, whether in higher education or outside the sector.

Other strands include:

– Developing a Board Appointment Diversity Framework in partnership with the leading search firms in the sector. This follows from recommendations from the Leadership Foundation report ‘Increasing the diversity of senior leaders in higher education: the role of executive search firms’ authored by Professor Simonetta Manfredi in March 2017.

– Piloting two board readiness workshops following feedback from our Women Onto Boards alumni development survey showing 75% of respondents would be interested in further support in order to develop the right profile and skills.

– Conducting a scoping study to assess the feasibility, effectiveness and practicalities of developing a Board Apprenticeship Scheme in the higher education sector providing aspiring board members with a risk-free environment to gain the necessary knowledge and experience to pursue a board appointment.

The sector has significant opportunity, during times of upheaval and uncertainty, to make tangible changes to the diversity of its governing boards, and in so doing strengthening the quality of its governance for the future.

Jenny Tester is a project associate managing the Board Diversification Project at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. The project aims to increase gender and BME diversity on university boards through practical, related initiatives. Jenny was previously a senior consultant at an executive search firm, leading senior appointments in higher education.