According to the National Governance Association’s 2017 annual school governance survey, just 4% of school governors and academy board trustees are from a Black, Asian or ethnic minority (BAME) background. The figure was at once at 5%, according to research commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment back in 1999. In almost two decades, no progress has been made and school governance remains steadfastly the domain of white, older people, usually men.
Outside of the field of education, there is solid research to show that diverse teams make better decisions, work more effectively, and run more successful companies. McKinsey and Co looked at 1,000 businesses over 12 countries and concluded that the best performing ones across the board were those where their leadership included not only women, people with disabilities, BAME, LGBTQ, and young people, but more importantly ones which sought diversity of thought and action among its teams. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but considering that we have a significant lack of women, people from BAME backgrounds and young people on school governing boards, it is no wonder that school governance is often seen as in dire need of a reboot. Many heads I have spoken to see their boards as at best something that can be tolerated, and at its worst a huge impediment to the progress of the school.
I would like to assert that there is a clear problem with recent campaigns to ensure that there is more diversity on boards – both in the world of business and on school governing boards. The first problem is recruiting people from diverse backgrounds in the first place. Where are you going to find these people if you don’t know them? Many governing board members probably don’t know anyone who isn’t like them and if most boards are white and male, we have a first hurdle right there. Secondly, how are you going to feel comfortable accepting someone into the fold that doesn’t look like and probably behave like what you feel is the norm? Thirdly, if the type of leadership qualities you think you need are generally deemed a domain of the great straight white male, how will you ensure that the people you invite onto your board have had the opportunities to gain the skills and experience you are looking for?
All of this aside, getting diverse faces around the table is a good idea to increase the chances of diversity of thought, it really isn’t enough. There is much work to be done before this happens, and also continuing work to be done after you have redressed any imbalance on your board that might be visibly obvious. I believe that we need to understand and accept an uncomfortable truth. We are all socialised and subtly conditioned to believe in a very specific idea of what a leader looks like and that is usually a white, older man. For centuries, the Western world has operated with the norm and neutral to be white. It’s so subtle that I bet you haven’t noticed what colour all sticking plasters are, or what colour ‘flesh’ coloured tights or colouring pencils are. Furthermore, we expect our leaders to be white men. Try Googling images for ‘business leader’ and see how many white men in suits come up. The world has been telling us, and continues to tell us a very specific message about who has the right and the authority to be at the top table. Making a decision to say this isn’t the case, that we don’t see difference, or somehow trying to trick our brains isn’t going to cut it.
This is where diversity of thought and action needs to come into play. We need to get people around the table who are not like us. Therefore, we need to actually see and seek out difference, and welcome it. We need to deliberately get people around the table who don’t think and operate like us, and deal with it. We need to get people around the table who haven’t had the same experiences, upbringings as us, that aren’t from the same class, religion or socio-economic background as us, and work with them effectively. And we people there to enrich, challenge, and stretch our horizons by forcing us to think differently. Collaboration is hard enough when everyone thinks they understand each other and has common ground, but how will this work when nobody does? If the McKinsey report is anything to go by, it works stunningly well.
But again, this isn’t enough. Just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean that I know anything about feminism, the subtle and not so subtle undermining and demeaning of women that happens in everyday sexism. Just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean I have given much thought to why I behave the way I do, dress the way I do and speak the way I do at work, for example. And just because I am a woman, doesn’t mean I am automatically in solidarity with other women, see them as comrades or do anything in my daily life to forward the prospects and voices of other women. This is because I have been brought up in a male-dominated society where the norms are demonstrated by that earlier Google images search result, where men might call caring for their own children ‘babysitting’, and where even when a woman does get to the top, her right to being truly a woman is often called into question.
So, it is a logical assumption that just because I come from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, this doesn’t mean I am less likely to see white, male leadership as the norm. Which is why getting diverse bums on seats is not enough. It’s also a massive burden as the only woman around the table or the only Black person around the table, to be charged with the responsibility to always see and protect the interests of ‘my’ marginalised ‘group’. To truly make changes in the composition of our governing boards, and in order to make changes to the way these boards operate, we need to make changes in the inherent bias that is part of each and every one of us, and part of being human. I would suggest that the first step to ensuring that governing boards are diverse is to ensure that we wake up to inherent bias as a concept, that we learn how to ask the right challenging and brave questions of ourselves and others that will ensure we are actively seeking out and tackling racism, sexism, homophobia and anything else that leads us back to the tempting magnetic north of straight, white, male, authoritarian conditioned concept of the norm.
If you’d like a reading list of books to help get you thinking about inherent bias, here are some that have helped me on my learning journey :
Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
Natives by Akala
Why I am no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo Lodge
White Privilege by Prof Kalwant Bhopal
Slay in Your Lane by Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené