Debating Board Diversity: Part 1 – Challenging the Gender Bias?



Everyone talks about diversity in the boardroom – but could our use of labels actually narrow the debate?  One day it may be gender, the next it may be race, or even age; and if we dig deep enough we may include ability (disability).

Our focus on the gender bias is understandable, because there is clearly a lack of female representation, both within the boardroom and at senior management levels – see the latest report from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. And research such as Regnan’s 2010 international study on diversity reinforces the business case in favour of gender equality on boards and within senior management, even though the report’s context was board independence and references broader participation by “minorities in general”.

So what about those other minorities (and the associated –isms)?

Should we criticize the boards of listed companies if their composition does not reflect our multiracial and multicultural society? Should board membership be a matter of race given that Australia is moving up as a global citizen in trade and the arts?  China, Indonesia, India and Brazil now demand our immediate attention.  Talk to anyone doing business overseas and they will all agree that having a partner on the ground is essential in gaining traction.  Therefore the argument for having partners in the boardroom becomes one for serious consideration; and having either representatives of a different cultural landscape or simply those with a different take on how things are interpreted or understood must lend itself to more robust discussion and outcomes.

Then what about age? 

The average age of ASX company directors is 58 according to a study conducted by the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Whilst numerous studies have been conducted on the average age and age range for Directors on Boards there seems to be no definitive evidence of a correlation between age (for which read “wisdom”?) and company performance.  In fact, there are examples of leadership that buck the rule, whether this is Alexander the Great, William Pitt the Younger or James Packer for that matter.  If leadership is a central requirement for effective directorship then at least the exceptions beg us to consider the merits of each individual regardless of age.

How is disability represented in the boardroom?

Sadly, there is an enormous chasm when conducting a desk audit on inclusion of people with disabilities on company boards. Most charities, not-for-profit organisations and public sector bodies that serve the interests of people with disabilities would aspire to have formal representation from their client communities on their boards. This may not always equate to having people with disabilities as directors, but at least there is a concerted effort to be inclusive.

In conclusion, and at the risk of being provocative, a key reason that the gender balance demands our attention is that there are corporate governance requirements to report on the data – such as the ASX gender diversity policy. Not so for the other minorities.

On the other hand, since gender diversity can be shown to generate bottom-line results, we must be open to the idea that broader diversity can only be good for business.

Posted by Dale Simpson (with assistance from Rory Manchee)

Next week: Part 2 – From Thought to Culture

If your board or senior management team needs help with developing a leadership diversity program, please contact Bravo Consulting about how we can help you achieve your goals.

BonnieSue Nevin

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