Overcoming Barriers to Equality and Diversity Representation on Public, Private and Third Sector Boards in Scotland

The Employment Research Institute was commissioned by the Scottish Government to identify how barriers to equality and diversity representation at board level in public, private and third sector organisations could be overcome, particularly for women. The report outlines the findings.

5 Overcoming Barriers to Equality and Diversity on Public Boards

Chapter Summary

  • Greater public awareness on the role of public boards in society may lead to improvements in the range of people applying to be considered.
  • Vacant positions on public boards should be more widely advertised to ensure that a wide range of people consider applying.
  • Training, mentoring and networking opportunities between existing and potential female board members are increasingly viewed as effective approaches to improving board diversity.
  • Reporting of gender equality targets and greater transparency on the gender representation of boards are effective methods for improving compliance with social expectations on improving representation of women on boards.


5.1 This section asks, how have barriers to equality and diversity representation on public boards been overcome? It identifies programmes and practices undertaken by public sector organisations to achieve improved representation on their boards. There are two strands to this section. The first identifies recommendations that have been made by: commissions appointed by government to look at the issues of boardroom diversity; government-funded research; and academic publications. The second draws from the experience of organisations as they seek to implement strategies to improve representation of equalities groups at board level. Together, these approaches provide a comprehensive overview of key actions that can be taken to improve diversity in the boardroom.

5.2 In Scotland, appointments to public bodies are regulated by the 2013 code of practice for ministerial appointments[46]. The code is designed to ensure that the public appointments process is thorough, encourages participation and generates confidence in public appointments. Ministers are responsible for specifying members of the selection panel. In Scotland, women comprise 36% of places on public boards.

5.3 UK wide, the proportion of women appointed to the boards of public bodies has been relatively stable for a decade. The proportion of women holding board positions on public bodies was 35% in 2011-12, down from a peak of 38% in 2004[47]. Despite this fall, public boards have a significantly greater proportion of women than their private sector counterparts. Among FTSE 100 companies, the proportion of women on private boards is 22.8%. Of FTSE 250 boards, this figure is lower at 17.4%[48].

Improving Access through Awareness

5.4 If boards are to improve their equality and diversity and thereby better represent the people they serve, it is vital that they are able to draw from as wide a pool of talent as possible. This can be achieved by improving public awareness of the role of public boards and the opportunities that are available to those who serve on them. Evidence suggests that understanding within society on the role of public bodies is low[49]. Low awareness may be reducing the number of people that apply for positions on public boards. By improving awareness of the role of public boards in society, there may be an increase in awareness of their function and an increase in the number of talented individuals that may consider applying for positions on these boards. The Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland ("the Commissioner") recommends several strategies be adopted to improve public awareness of the role of boards with the aim of increasing the number of applicants to positions on boards, such as improved awareness of:

  • the diverse roles and functions of public bodies
  • the role of their board members
  • the wide range of people needed by boards
  • the opportunities to serve on them
  • the benefits of serving on a board - for the individual and their employer[50].

5.5 Specifically, the Commissioner recommends that a communication campaign be mounted to inform the public of the role of public bodies and inspire people to apply. In this campaign, role models from equalities groups that are under-represented at board level should be enlisted to 'reinforce consistent, positive and encouraging messages about their work as board members'[51]. The Commissioner highlights a series of actions that can be taken to raise the profile of board members, outlined below:

  • Arranging a series of features about - or interviews with - board role models in local press and in magazines connected with the work of the board on which they sit.
  • Arrange a series of features about - or interviews with - board role models on national, local and community radio stations.
  • Involve board role models in a promotional campaign after the television news. Use it to promote the value of their role and the opportunities to serve on the boards of our public bodies.
  • Publish profiles of the board members on each public body's website, focusing on their diversity. As well as visible diversity, highlight the differences that cannot be seen, for example in board members' backgrounds, education and experience.

5.6 Further recommendations provided by the Commissioner include: ensuring that vacant board positions are well publicised through relevant websites, personal contacts and signposting; monitoring of publicity strategies for their impact on the number and diversity of appointments; holding public events in partnership with community groups and equality networks to further inspire people about opportunities for participation on public boards.

5.7 The literature reviewed as part of this study noted that 'diverse candidates lack social capital and are often excluded from influential social networks, affecting access to boards. In addition, boardroom cultures can be inhospitable to individuals from under-represented groups'. The informal networks that form the basis for relationships between people facilitates career progression by ensuring that vital information about job opportunities can be accessed beyond formal channels. For this reason, 'developing sufficient social capital is crucial to being accepted as a potential board director'[52].

Improving Access through Training

5.8 A key strategy for improving gender equality on boards has focussed on the use of training to prepare individuals for serving on boards. Several UK based initiatives have been developed that seek to address the perceived need for women and other under-represented groups to receive training that would improve their readiness for a role on the board. These initiatives carry the assumption that a significant cause of under-representation for women on boards is skills-shortages and that training will help overcome this. This approach seeks to use training to address education and skill gaps but does not address institutional and systemic barriers to participation such as: the tendency of senior groups to hire in their own image; a lack of access to social networks through which information about job opportunities is passed. There has been a significant body of research focussing on the influence of hiring in one's own image that has undermined the boardroom aspirations of women[53] and ethnic groups[54]. Nevertheless, training for potential new board members appears to be either generic for all groups of people seeking access to board level positions or specifically targeted at women or other under-represented groups aspiring to access board positions.

5.9 Several consultancy firms specialise in creating training packages that claim to address the skills shortages for women seeking positions on public boards. These packages offer support from deciding which roles to target, to leadership skills and training in governance issues. Coaching and workshops are available on: corporate governance; risk management; the role of the non-executive director; updating and rewriting CVs; targeting a public appointment; and assistance in finding an appropriate type of board related to interests and strengths[55].

5.10 A strategy proposed by the Commissioner to improve the representation of equalities groups on public boards involves the use of education programmes to improve the routes for potential board members to develop their experience. This process would initially involve identifying individuals from inside the organisation who have potential to act as full board members and whose position on the board would improve board diversity. Existing board members would act as mentors and would work within a framework to support potential new appointees.

5.11 A purpose of any training activity must be to improve the linkages between boards and women seeking to become board members. By developing strong social ties to the formal and informal network of individuals with knowledge and experience of the boardroom, social networks can be strengthened and opportunities for advancement can be identified.


Email: Jacqueline Rae

Back to top