Beyond Tokenism

It is often and rightly assumed that a board or a committee needs to have diversity of membership:  that for a board to be effective in its deliberations, then diverse constituencies need to be at the table.   Currently within many circles, we make the plea for diversity of gender – “we need more women on the board” or diversity of ethnicity – and the plea is heard, “we need more from our ethnic minorities on the board” or diversity of age, “we need more young people!” . . . and so on.    In response – 

First, diversity is not about being politically correct and neither is it about optics – though let’s face it, when the board or committee is all men of European descent on a board of a North American organization or church, the optics are not good!   When, for example, the senior leadership of my denomination in Canada is 100% men who are descendants of European settlers, we have a problem!    Rather, diversity is about perspective; it is about seeing problems and issues and concerns from different perspectives; it is about seeing and recognizing that no one person and no one perspective has the wisdom we need for engaging the challenges before us.   It is about recognizing that women and men see things differently and that the same can be said for diversity of ethnicity and age and perhaps geography [no doubt people from Seattle see the world through a rather different lens that those who are born and raised in Arkansas].  We need diversity so that we come to wisdom and move towards good decisions that foster our capacity to do what we are called to do. 

But second, securing this essential diversity so that we have this wisdom is not about getting a token representative of this or that demographic on the board or on the committee.   I do not know the science that lies behind this observation; I fully grant that what I am about to put out there is based on anecdote and observation – experience working on committees or boards.  And if anyone reading this does know the science or can document what I am observing, please let me know {].   Tokenism does not work.   There has to be a minimal critical mass for that “voice” to genuinely be heard and actually inform the committee or board decisions.  And it would seem that that minimal number is three:  only with at least three is there a genuine voice. 

A committee of all men urgently needs another perspective; we need not “a woman” but women on this committee.   And for whatever reason, it has to be at least three.  Till then, it does feel like a token; till then, the lone voice is a lone voice and if it is an insistent voice, it will seem strident or discordant . We might listen sympathetically, but then move on.    Working committees are most effective when men and women, of diverse ages and ethnicities, work together to find solutions – listening to one another and moving each other towards closure.   Perhaps it is overly stereotypical and perhaps it is all about socialization – that is very possible – but a major accounting firm made the observation that if a committee was made up of all women, they took forever to get to closure and if it was made up of all men, they got to their decisions too quickly without sufficient deliberation such that the most effective committees included both men and women.  Again, whether that has been adequately documented or not, the issue remains the same:  to get to wisdom and closure, we need diversity and to genuinely have diversity, we need a minimal collective so that that voice is truly present and heard and can actually influence the actions that are being taken by the board or committee. 

Another example:   in my work as a university president, it is essential that I have voices from the corporate world on the board.   But again, if it is only one corporate leader, it has little or no substantive impact on the deliberations and the quality of the decisions we make.  My rule of thumb: if you want that “voice” to be heard, there need to be at least three – in this case, at least three corporate leaders, so that that perspective genuinely informs the work that we are doing.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.