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Wednesday, 29th November 2023



Atul K. Shah, Diverse Ethics

The statistics on diversity and equality in British Boards, both private and public, are very poor. Overwhelmingly, Boards tend to be white and male. The situation is much worse in the private sector, where less than 15% of Footsie Directors are women, and less than 5% from Ethnic Minorities ( even when most of these companies trade globally). People with disability are virtually absent from boardrooms.

At Diverse Ethics, we have written a number of articles explaining the impasse – there is compelling evidence of a widespread culture of fear of difference in the boardroom, and people in power, prefer to have more of the same – people who look and act in the same way. We have also worked with the Appointments Commission to help them expand their recruitment base and reach a wider audience, especially of ethnic minorities. Our experience and work has shown that there is a very strong pool of ethnic candidates available and ready to take up these roles. However, the truth is that in many Boards,  there is ignorance of the benefits of diversity and distrust- a real nervousness about power-sharing. The Equality Act 2010 makes it very clear that organisations have to be open and non-discriminatory at every level, and they have to be seen to be acting in that way and not simply hide behind facile policy statements. Institutional racism or discrimination is illegal.

One highly innovative scheme designed by the Museums, Libraries & Archives Council to break this impasse, especially in the area of ethnic diversity, where the sector has huge challenges, was to create an Informal Board Secondment Scheme - a fixed pilot period of appointment (one year) where both secondees and the Board get a chance to test the experience. The stated objective was ‘to enable the Board and Executive to enjoy the benefit of advice and guidance from non-traditional sources, such that the MLA is better equipped to represent the needs and interests of society.’ Designed by the Chairman Sir Andrew Motion, and Chief Executive Roy Clare CBE, the scheme benefited from expert leadership and commitment from day one and was designed to be reciprocal, so that Secondees also benefited from the training and experience. There was also a wider sectoral objective: ‘the Scheme would contribute to a broadening of the demographic composition of Boards across the sector so that the benefits of the initiative would reverberate well beyond the MLA, bringing diversity and a fresh approach to decision-making throughout the public sector.’

Members of the MLA Board at one of their meetings, hosted at the Oshwal Centre in London

Two secondees were appointed for a twelve month period, after a selection process – Ms. Subnum Hariff from Bolton Libraries, and Dr. Atul Shah, from Diverse Ethics. Each secondee was allocated a staff and Board mentor, and given an initial period of training and orientation to the workings of the Board. They were invited to attend all Board meetings as observers, including strategy meetings. Reflecting on the whole experience, the secondees found it – ‘fantastic, personally energising, and excellent practical leadership training.’ Sir Andrew Motion explained: “The entire Board and the Executive have greatly valued the Secondee's participation – we know that the work of the MLA has benefitted from your insight and experience.”

In summary, a secondment scheme is an excellent way of giving both sides an experience of the importance of a diverse Board, enabling greater trust, respect and a more representative Boardroom, which is less exclusive and more creative.

Rebecca Scott, partner at the international accounting firm Mazars and a specialist on Board Leadership commented on the experience – ‘excellent and very innovative – worth promoting more widely.’


Article added on 28th January 2011 at 3:02pm
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