Tackling inequality to achieve boardroom diversity

In this article Maria Brookes discusses the joint statement from the five UK Sports Councils and how the review findings about lack of diversity echo similar concerns in boardrooms.

On 23 June,  – the five UK Sports Councils: UK Sport, Sport England, sportscotland, Sport Wales and Sport Northern Ireland – issued a joint statement about race in sports.

The five had commissioned a review following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, which prompted a great deal of soul searching across the affluent economies of the west, at least, about racial inequalities. In this particular instance, Floyd’s murder acted as a catalyst for the sector to explore racial inequalities in sport and consider how reflective the current sporting system is of UK society as a whole.

Unsurprisingly, the findings showed that racism and racial inequalities are prevalent within sports and that ethnically diverse communities in the UK have been consistently disadvantaged because of longstanding issues such as social deprivation, a lack of access to funding and a ‘colour blind’ approach to complaints of racism.

The report makes for very uncomfortable reading, with lived experiences pointing to anxiety and mental health issues as a result of the attitudes and behaviours of coaches towards ethnically diverse participants, as well as limited opportunities for career progression and lack of access to top roles for those coaches who are more culturally diverse.

The story is no better in sporting boardrooms. In 2019, Haysmacintyre found, from a sample of 24 national governing bodies from across the UK, that just 4% of board members were ethnically diverse. This number had improved slightly by the time that Perret Laver surveyed 125 sports organisations funded by Sport England and/or Sport UK in 2020, but not massively so. Results showed that 7.9% of respondents identified as ethnically diverse, well below the percentage of people identifying as so in the UK.

Poor or non-existent representation is damaging on many levels, as the lack of visible role models reinforces negative stereotypes and impacts upon decision-making. And on the issue of race especially, organisations are seriously lagging.

In both the sports and corporate worlds, for instance, a lot has been done to try and improve gender diversity in the boardroom. In the publicly-funded sports sector, a great deal of work in recent years has resulted in more than 40% of seats at the board table being occupied by women. The new iteration of the Code for Sports Governance is set to appear later in the summer, and diversity will remain a key focus.

In the corporate world, meanwhile, the February 2021 Hampton-Alexander report, the final report of the five-year review, shows that on average, the FTSE 100, FTSE 250 and FTSE 350 had by the end of 2020 all reached the target of having 33% of board positions occupied by women. Indeed, at the time of publication, there were no longer any all-male boards in the FTSE 350. Progress indeed, if incomplete.

The story on improving ethnic diversity in FTSE boards is less promising. In February 2020, the Parker Review revealed that it would be challenging for FTSE 100 companies to hit the ‘One by 2021’ target set back in 2017. The report showed that 37% of FTSE 100 companies surveyed did not have any ethnic minority representation on their boards. In response, review Chairman Sir John Parker called for ethnic diversity to be given the same level of boardroom focus as gender diversity.

‘To remain competitive in the global market’, he said, ‘UK businesses must focus further on the recommendations in the report, increasing alignment of the Board with its customer base at home and overseas. They must also address the key challenges of recruiting board talent now and in the future, recognising the significant demographic changes taking place in the UK and international markets in favour of ethnically diverse candidates’. Action, he concluded, was needed to bring about long-term change.

That long-term change is something that many have recognised as being crucial since the coronavirus pandemic forced into the open the wide social disparities that exist – not just in the UK but around the globe. Both business and the sports sector, as well as not-for-profits, the public sector and other parts of the economy are being called on to do more and more to cure societal ills and sorting out issues of fairer representation at the top would send a genuine signal to society.

At this year’s Chartered Governance UK & Ireland annual conference, ‘Governance 2021’, we will be addressing boardroom diversity from a variety of perspectives. On 6 July at 14.35, Denise Wilson, Chief Executive of the Hampton-Alexander Review will take part in a panel discussion about ‘The next generation boardroom’ at which she and her fellow panellists will discuss how building diversity into succession planning in the boardroom is ‘mission critical’.

On 7 July at 09.05, Stephanie Boyce, President of The Law Society will be providing a keynote speech on ‘Boosting socio-economic diversity at senior levels’. Later that morning, we also hear about the Institute’s work with the Centre for Synchronous Leadership (CSL) on how exclusion happens in the boardroom.

Maria Brookes, Media Relations Manager, The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland

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