How can you create a more diverse board of directors?

10 min read

Sara Hatfield

Picture of Sarah Hatfield loving life

The value of board diversity and inclusivity has been well established. And yet, many organizations and companies have a long way to go to achieve this.

When Statistics Canada surveyed 6,000 board members between December 2020 and January 2021, they found that a relatively trivial percentage of those interviewed were from minority demographics. And the majority of those interviewed either indicated that their organization did not have a board diversity policy, or did not know whether one existed. Similar figures were reflected in a BoardSource study in the United States that was conducted in 2018.

This research indicates that there is a lot more work to be done to ensure that boards reflect the full gamut of humanity. But before we discuss how this can be achieved, it’s perhaps firstly worthwhile to reiterate why this is so important.

Importance of Diversity

Boards that include people of all genders, races, ages, sexual orientations, cultural backgrounds and levels of ability will be more able to consider a variety of perspectives, and on this basis make more informed decisions. Organizations that lack diversity and inclusivity will ultimately be deficient in those perspectives, and will often fail to achieve the big missions that they set out to accomplish.

Another issue is that if people working within an organization feel that it is non-inclusive, and that they are going to be excluded in some way, they will be, at best, less motivated to climb the ranks, and at worst, inclined to leave the organization completely.

Challenges to Overcome

When creating a more diverse and inclusive board, there are always challenges to overcome. One of the most obvious ones is the situation that we have previously mentioned - there is a lack of diverse role models in board members currently. Boards have typically tended to promote white middle-class middle-aged males, and while this demographic definitely shouldn't be discounted, the lack of visible figures from different backgrounds and groups can prove discouraging for people who identify with them.

There can also often be an inclination for group thinking within boards, which can exclude new members, or even people from outside of the typically represented demographics. But even when this is recognized, broadening the search for talent to attract more diverse applicants can be challenging, particularly if those in charge of recruitment have no experience or expertise in this area.

So it's very important when attempting to create a diverse and inclusive board to implement best practices, as achieving this exalted goal is not necessarily as straightforward as one might imagine. Thus, in the remainder of this article, we're going to examine some of the key points related to creating a more diverse board.

Addressing Bias

Generally speaking, bias is an extremely debilitating quality associated with any entity, as it simply means that it is impossible to be objective. And if there's one quality that you wish to be associated with your board and its decisions, it is objectivity.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias can shape many aspects of hiring and decision-making, which can then have a negative impact on outcomes. It can also affect the way that candidates are evaluated, and who is ultimately hired by the organization, as well as impacting on the cultural climate.

Thus, acquiring an inside perspective on this issue is definitely worthwhile. Speak to your people, and get their perspective on what could be done better. The only way to tackle bias is to constantly assume that it exists, and to challenge the attitudes of the most important people in the organization at all times.

Get Everyone Involved

The whole basis of inclusivity is that everyone feels involved in the critical processes of your organization, and thus sustaining an intentional action towards this goal is essential. Creating an aligned vision throughout your organization will ensure that not only are board members inviting diversity in their decision-making and outlook, but that this is encouraged throughout the organization as a whole. Diversity training can also help unite people behind this concept, and both regular workshops and actively making resources available can assist with this cherished goal.

Inclusive Culture in the Boardroom

Diversity isn't just about inviting people to participate from different demographic groups. It is also about creating and promoting a culture that is genuinely inclusive. You can invite five or six new people to sit on a board, but if none of them feel part of the process, or are really encouraged to participate, then you cannot reasonably say that you have an inclusive culture.

To help create this inclusive environment, boards can provide a robust onboarding programme to ensure that everyone becomes comfortable as quickly as possible. Communicating best practices to board members, and ensuring that these are followed up on regularly, can also reap reward.

Use a Continual Assessment Process

Evaluating the contribution and performance of your board should always involve regular assessment anyway, but this can also be used to examine your diversity and inclusivity process. Simply by considering on a regular basis whether you have the optimum composition of board members, you make it far more likely to develop an inclusive and diverse board. The assessment process can also be a sounding board for raising and addressing issues that would otherwise remain hidden beneath the surface.

Elect Key Members to Critical Positions

Electing board leadership that truly understands the importance of diversity and inclusivity, and, indeed, how to foster this within your organization, is critically important. Every member of a board can influence the process of encouraging diversity, but creating official positions within your board, and then promoting credentialed individuals to handle these roles will tend to lead to a healthier working culture. Once you have board members that are serving as champions for greater diversity then you have a cohesive process in place that can lead to an ideal board structure.

Communicate Actively

Communication is always key for any goal within an organization. But it is probably of even more importance when it comes to diversity. It would be a mistake to assume that everyone in your organization is in line with this goal. And even if they are, they may have a completely different view of how diversity and inclusivity should operate to the existing board. It’s important to emphasize that this doesn't necessarily mean that they are wrong, or indeed that the board is right, just that it's important to open an avenue of two-way dialogue throughout the organization, in order to engage in open and thoughtful discussion.

Ultimately, it's important to communicate how people working within the organization, as well as the organization as a whole, ultimately benefits from diversity. It's also important to discuss the opportunities that can be missed if the board as a component, and the organization as a whole, remain homogenous. Discussing race, culture, ethnicity, gender, and other demographic issues can ignite a huge amount of awareness, and this can only be a positive for embedding diversity in your working culture.

Develop a Plan

Many organizations buy into the concept of being more diverse and inclusive, yet fail to deliver this due to a lack of planning. For any other important activity within your organization, there is always a business case, and therefore a business plan. This should therefore be followed through with diligence for diversity, in order to help your board develop, articulate, and embrace a shared vision for inclusiveness.

Once this has been decided, it is then always prudent to enshrine this definition of diversity and inclusivity within the documentation associated with your organization. Your policy on diversity should definitely be handed out to new entrants, or even people that are being interviewed to join the organization at some point in the future. It is also important to update this documentation on a regular basis, in the process ensuring that you don't stand still in what is a rapidly evolving world.

Avoid Tokenism

It's easy to pay lip service to diversity. But building a diverse board should never be about tokenism. Board members are not there to satisfy quotas, nor to create a pleasing optic for external stakeholders. It is always important to treat each and every board member equally, and to have the same expectations of everyone involved in board activity.

Instigate Proactivity

If you want to build a diverse board, simply accepting referrals isn't the best way to go about it. You will find that your existing board members tend to know people that are similar to them, and this will ultimately result in a maintenance of the status quo.

Expanding your recruiting reach is critical when attempting to create a diverse board. And it's therefore important to investigate several different routes. Posting online on websites, taking advantage of the targeting options on LinkedIn, boosting your recruitment via social media, asking around local organizations and associations, and actively identifying events that are attractive to the demographics that you're seeking to recruit are all sensible ways of bringing new people on board.

The qualities that you require may walk through your front door, but it will be far easier to identify and attract them if you seek them out proactively.

Monitor and Measure Results

In common with many processes throughout your organization, it's always important to monitor and measure the success of any diversity and inclusion policies.

This can be done on a quarterly, or semi-annual basis. But the important thing is to update your findings regularly, and ensure that you're on track with achieving your diversity goals. There are several metrics that are important here, such as tracking the retention rates of your members, and conducting exit interviews to assess your processes.

In fact, ongoing assessment is a vital part of this initative, particularly at board level. Hand out questionnaires to board members on a regular basis related to diversity strategies and goals, and carefully curate their answers.


Achieving meaningful change in the composition of a board is not a straightforward process. It will not happen overnight. It will take a diligent investment from people at every level of the organization and it will require time, commitment and energy from everyone involved. But if you fail to create a climate for change, then embracing diversity will prove impossible.

The most important aspect of creating a culture of diversity and inclusivity is to constantly question yourself and your processes. The organization should be asking critical questions on a continual basis. What does diversity mean for your organization? What does it mean for the board of directors? Are you overseeing diversity and inclusivity metrics throughout your organization as a whole? Can these be enhanced in any way? And can you do a better job of including diversity as part of your recruitment and onboarding process?

Simply by asking these questions, you will ensure that they are embedded in the working culture of your organization and the likelihood of diversity being properly instigated at every level, including board level, is greatly increased as a result.

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