Is diversity of value?

Guest Post

The argument that there should be more diversity on boards, and in other senior positions, and that this should be achieved by getting rid of older white men is specious and flawed.

I should declare my status in this argument. I am an older, mostly white woman with some board experience, although not on large commercial boards.

Let us go back to the basic statement that boards require diversity. We should ask what added value is diversity going to bring to the organisation? Surely the question is what skills and experience is a person going to bring that will improve the outcomes and profitability?

Being a woman, a disabled person or black white or green may add no value at all if the business is marketing entirely to white middle-aged men and has no need to diversify into different areas. However, if a person who is a lesbian Maori in a wheelchair brings considerable knowledge in an area required, for example, health and safety with high qualifications and broad technical knowledge, they should be considered equal to men for the job. Not because they are disabled but because they understand the law and HR requirements. They may have equal value for that knowledge as an elderly white male with the same qualifications and is worthy of equal consideration.

If the organisation is going to diversify into female products, for example, they probably should have some women on the board, particularly to scrutinise the marketing and product development plans. Men frequently say they don’t understand women and hate shopping. So how can a group of men with similar thoughts meet the market needs properly? If the business is hoping to understand the Maori market they should have talented Maori on their board, but it would be a mistake to consider that one Maori can provide expertise on the whole Maori market. Rural Maori living a traditional lifestyle may be very different to modern city Maori with masses of big business experience. Just being Maori does not necessarily add value.

Age may make a difference in some sectors. The speed of decision making and the use of IT are two areas where it may make a difference to the effectiveness of the board member. Traditional old-style board members who are accustomed to once-a-month board meetings and read their papers on the plane to Wellington may not be the most useful members in the days when businesses are complex and require fast well-informed decision making. A colleague of mine who is on a major board reads all papers well ahead of time, and checks the research quoted in any proposals as well as undertaking some of his own research on specific proposals. This means he reads the original documents, not just the abstracts which are often screwed to “sell” a predetermined concept or idea. A modern board member also has to be available for urgent meetings when required. It is rarely a one-day-a-month job anymore.

If you are moving into an international market it would certainly make sense to have people on your board who understand the countries you wish to trade with, and what they are like now. Countries, like people, grow and develop fast. The knowledge that an old grey-haired man might have had in exporting may be out of date. Up-to-date experience is imperative.

The ability and preparedness to do the legwork as a board member is probably one of the most important components of being on a board. Not believing everything you are told, and having the courage to ask questions and listen to the answers, is a critical factor in good governance, not diversity.

As a woman, I want to be selected on my competence. To select me for any other reason is patronising and offensive. It actually disempowers me, not empowers.

Diversity is not important as such. A wide and appropriate skill set is required. An enquiring mind and a desire to learn and contribute, to gain additional training in both governance and in legislative changes are essentials. It is no sinecure.


– Frances Denz MNZM

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A guest post submitted to Whaleoil and edited by Whaleoil staff.

Guest Post content does not necessarily reflect the views of the site or its editor. Guest Post content is offered for discussion and for alternative points of view.

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