Tokenism on boards

Diversity awkwardness. In this series we hit the awkward topics around boards, and we try to encourage a move towards a thoughtful discussion that will drive us to create truly dynamic boards. This is #2 in the series, click here to read #1 “I’m not diversity”. 

“I don’t want to be asked to join the board just because I’m the token _____”.

We’ve heard this a lot of times recently from under-represented groups, usually women and people from ethnic minorities. Fair play. We get what you mean. Who would want to feel they were only hired simply because of their ______?! 

This is a multifaceted problem. An individual can feel that they were a token hire, others can perceive them as a token hire, and organisations can run a recruitment process in a tokenistic way. 

This is something we need to tackle, because if fewer people from underrepresented groups aspire to board roles because of fear of feeling or being perceived as a ‘token hire’, we will struggle to see change in the mix we have on our boards. If an individual does decide to join a board despite a sense they may be perceived as a ‘token hire’, then it can be quite a challenge for them to make a strong positive start on their new board and become a highly-valued board member.

Firstly, four key examples of classic toxic ‘token’ thinking: 

  • They were under pressure to hire a woman, they only hired her to look good. 
  • The hiring process secretly sought to appoint someone from an ethnic minority, it wasn’t a fair process. 
  • They weren’t hired purely on ‘merit’, based on skills and experience, because they were looking for a woman. 
  • There weren’t many people to choose from since they were looking for an ethnic minority, so the bar was lower.

Not having faith that the process that brought you to the board was a robust process is toxic; both to how you perceive your own position on the board, and how others may perceive you. 

How boards can avoid tokenism

Integrity 

Does the board genuinely believe in the value of improving the board mix? If not, then tokenism is a reality, and an inevitable challenge for the new board member. This doesn’t mean that they can’t become a successful contributor to the board, but they will arrive knowing they have an uphill struggle ahead. Adding a “token hire board member” for “defensive reasons” or to “tick a box”, is doing a disservice to the board, shareholders, stakeholders and any potential new board member. Improving the mix on the board needs to be a positive step to enhance the board with a new member bringing exciting new perspectives, fresh thinking and their skill sets and experiences. 

Process

Recruiting for your board shouldn’t feel like finding a needle in a haystack.  If you are looking for a woman and your process only gives you two that meet your brief, then that is a poor process. There are ways to run an effective competitive process:

  1. Evaluate your existing mix. Make time to look at your existing mix in a holistic way – the mix of skills (accounting, strategy,…), experiences (executive, start-up, people management…), and perspectives (gender, ethnicity, age, socio-economic background, thinking style…). Given the multiple stakeholders the board needs to be thinking about as you make decisions (customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders, environment…) it’s important you feel you have a good mix of people to help to do that. This needs honest reflection and it might also need external help.  Why not ask other stakeholders what perspectives they think your board is lacking?
  2. Decide what you are looking for. Sometimes there might be four gaps on the board e.g. Technology, ESG, women and people from ethnic minorities.  Rather than looking for one person to tick all the boxes, be open about all four areas you are seeking and why. Consider whether you could hire more than one person. 
  3. Write a clear advert. Describe the skills and experiences you are particularly looking for. And then give a clear statement about any perspectives you are seeking and why. You are allowed to mention a perspective you are lacking! It is legal to seek to address under-representation through encouraging applications from under-represented groups. Here’s an example: “We believe we would be a fairer and more equal organisation and make better decisions if we had a better gender and ethnicity mix on our board. Our board is currently 12% female and has no people from ethnic minorities, so we would particularly encourage applications from women and people of ethnic minorities. This is particularly important for us as 70% of our employees are women, and 29% of our customers are from ethnic minorities“.  You will get more applicants that meet your brief if you are straight up about who you are looking for and why. 
  4. Advertise. Ensure you have as fair and wide a reach as possible. Whilst housing associations, NHS trusts and foundation trusts, and public sector organisations are good at consistently advertising board roles, many private sector companies aren’t. This means only those privileged enough to be in the know with the search firm or company will hear about the vacancy. We would encourage all organisations, large or small, private, listed or public sector, to advertise their board vacancies (and if it’s sensitive, advertise anonymously).

Perception

  • You don’t just need to have integrity in how you run this process: ensuring an appraisal of the existing mix, and being honest and open about who you are looking for; you need to communicate clearly. To the candidate, to the organisation, and to other stakeholders too.
  • Use data to reflect on your recruitment process. This could include how many applicants you had, how many met your desired criteria and what the mix on your shortlist was like. Share those stats, at the very least with the board and other key stakeholders. 

If you’re worried about being a ‘token’ hire

Assuming the process was run in a fair and transparent way, if you feel like you might be a ‘token hire’ or that others might perceive you as that, then it’s worth reflecting on what you believe about your role on the board. 

  • Although you were recruited as an individual, you are part of a group who will collectively make key strategic decisions for the organisation. Who else is on the board? What skills, experience and perspective gaps did they have before you joined?
  • Do you believe your skills and experience will be valuable to the board? If ‘yes’, then hold your head up high.  If ‘no’, don’t join the board!
  • From what you know of the rest of the board, do you believe the perspective you bring to the board (thinking style, background, gender, ethnicity, personality, socio economic background…) will add to the board conversations? If yes, then be confident that you are helping the board to optimise their decision-making and avoid ‘groupthink’‘ simply by bringing your unique difference, perspectives and independence of mind.

Tokenism is toxic for boards and board members. We can take steps to end the ‘token’ feelings all round. We all need to become more confident talking honestly about the mix we have, and the mix we are seeking to have, acknowledging board members form part of a group that makes collective decisions. We need to run open and transparent processes that leave everyone in no doubt that the person who joins the board brings skills, experience and perspectives that will be highly valued and will help the board collectively propel the organisation forward.  

Watch our discussion on this topic:

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