It’s not about your colour or your genitals…?
Why do boards not explicitly state the reasons for their bias and discrimination against specific types of people on boards like women and people of colour? Most writers on corporate boards describe the numbers, legislation, type of environment, structures and aspirations – the hoped-for percentage representation of women and other quotas on boards by such-and-such a year. Only occasionally, do authors attribute low status as the reason why women and ethnic minorities may not be eligible for board membership.
Rationalisations are offered – women don’t yet have the requisite corporate experience at senior levels; women have technical skills but are not ready or able to grasp the big picture, boards need different perspectives, racism simply does not exist here, (how could it, if there are so few people of colour there?), etc.
But we know that rationalisations serve other purposes, like reinforcing previously developed and tightly-held fears, stereotypes and prejudices. Rationalisations serve to make one feel comfortable with one’s own narratives and may prevent any re-examination of them, notably that women and the experience of race may bring leadership skills that are necessary for developing board sentience – empathy, loyalty, attachment to the work, trustworthiness, constancy and reliability.
Attitudes towards gender and race are developed from childhood and serve as mental models that influence later behaviour and decision-making, at the individual level and at the group level. Generally, white men think of themselves as providers who must be dominant and demonstrate aggression, achievement, autonomy, exhibition and endurance. Boards may be influenced by views held about women and people of colour such as affiliation to others, nurturance, deference, abasement and subjugation (Konrad et al, 2000) – behaviours that are thought of as having no place in the boardroom.
Boards may pride themselves on their superior corporate governance, accountability and absence of scandals. The premise is that principles-based governance is more effective than a rules-based approach, and moreover that, officers and directors are likely to be more accountable where they truly embrace key principles of effective governance.
The hallmarks of good oversight by board members include: independence, integrity, commitment to ethos, effective oversight of managers, strategic planning initiatives, ongoing assessment of risks, well-defined board committees, and regular evaluation of individual director and board performance.
Where boards claim high standards in these factors, they are likely too, to attend to questions of diversity in relation to gender and race. Maintaining these correlations between good practice and attention to diversity is necessary for breaking the homogeneity of many boards that are dominated by Caucasian men and to be more connected to the societies within which they operate.
The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations’ certificated programme on the
Dynamics at Board-Level offers opportunities to examine deep underlying dynamics (mostly hidden, sometimes unconscious) that preserve the status quo, despite high-minded statements of intent to diversify by boards. Our programme, open to all those working on and with boards, examines why boards claim to want to change, yet carry on complacently as before, protecting enclaves of Caucasian fraternal exclusivity, and rationalising that as ‘appointing the best boys for the job’.
We are now inviting applications for the programme which takes place at
Cumberland Lodge in the heart of Windsor Great Park to the west of London.
Please contact Rachel Kelly, Professional Development Co-ordinator, for a brochure and further information.
t: +44 (0)20 7457 3927
Konrad, A.M.; Ritchie Jnr, J.E.; Lieb, P.; and Corrigall, E. (2000), Sex differences and similarities in job attribute preferences: a meta-analysis, Psychological Bulletin, 126, pp. 593-641.