Being a minority on a board: two directors share their insights

Speaking to a room full of governance leaders, award-winning director Cassandra Crowley and director on multiple boards and former MP Steve Maharey covered a range of topic during a panel discussion with MC Ziena Jalil at the Women in Governance Awards 2022.

During the discussion, the directors spoke about women in governance, with a particular focus on inclusion, finding your allies, backing yourself and creating a pathway for other female governors.

In this transcript (below) Crowley and Maharey share their advice on being a minority on a board.

Ziena Jalil: As we see more women get appointed to boards, more people of color get appointed to boards, for the ones who do make it through, sometimes they're the only person of their gender or their ethnicity on those tables. And that can be a very lonely experience, but it can also come with a sense of burden.

What is your advice to people who find themselves in the minority on boards in terms of gender or ethnicity?

Steve Maharey:

“Talk about it, I think is the main thing. And for people who are on the board to encourage that discussion.

“I make it a practice to always have a future director on any board because I think that's one of the ways we can help.

“An illustration of that is one of the future directors we had was a young woman of Indian background and she was quite quiet. Always asked good questions, but always at the end of a chain of questions and we got talking about this, so what's, what's the story?

“And we had a lot, lots of conversations because that's what a chair should do. They should talk to people if they feel there is an issue or someone else in the group should take responsibility to do that.

“She said, I don't like asking questions because everybody here knows more than I do and I kind of respect their standing, that's my cultural background, so I'm always going to be last.

“So, we had a discussion as a group, about how we were going to handle that kind of situation and we found ourselves in a situation where she was much more comfortable to ask questions earlier because people had said they were relaxed about her doing that kind of thing.

“And she gradually evolved into asking questions, basically whenever she felt like it.

“But I think the starting point is not to sit around and say, there's something wrong here, I'm not really sure.

“It's to be open, transparent and talk about things.

Cassandra Crowley:

“I'd fully support that. I quite often when I was starting out in governance was definitely the youngest person by about 30 or 40 years, usually the only woman and in some circumstances the only independent director.

“And it comes back to I think the chair and others creating an environment where you can be authentically who you are.

“Unless people have made a very erroneous mistake with me, people know I'm not a seat warmer. I'm not going go there and be someone else.

“And to have someone who is as a chair can make you realise that that's okay and you go and contribute for what you've been selected for, can be really empowering.

“So, I think as women going into those situations, it's really important about understanding those opportunities you've been given and if they're right for you, and they are, know that they're right for you and own it and bring the best of who you are to the situation.”