The right thing to do – using the Chairs' Challenge to increase diversity of housing association boards

Doris Jamieson, 17 November 2022

Our group board is not very diverse at all. At Flagship Group we are getting colleagues on side, the local housing boards are becoming more diverse but there is always more we can do. At the group board level, this needs to be an area of focus when we need to recruit new board members. Diversity in succession planning is going to be very important, diversity of thought and experience helps to reduce the risk of groupthink.

The initial focus of the Chairs' Challenge is on racial diversity, but this can be applied to other types of diversity too, which should help boards have richer conversations. The challenge will encourage those who haven’t started thinking about this and give chairs the structure to have those conversations, identify the goals and start on the journey to achieve the objectives. But it’s about action rather than words: words are the easy bit!

Historically, more rural areas in the UK are largely white, so some organisations have used this as an excuse; that their populations aren’t very diverse so their boards don’t need to be – but that’s not true anymore. Where we operate mainly in Norfolk and Suffolk is substantially more diverse than 15 years ago. We need to think carefully about what we’re actually comparing against to future-proof the organisation: the diversity of the board in relation to the working-age population. Yes, we also serve residents who are retirees but we must be effective for the tenants of the future, especially in cities, and ensure we’re not relying on historical data. The result of the latest census will provide more up to date data to start the conversations, but we mustn’t lose sight of change when reality on the ground overtakes historical data.

The technical expertise that the sector has traditionally required of members is also a barrier. We need people to be courageous in asking questions but papers should be written in an accessible way – we use external consultants for the technical side; we don’t need to replicate that with board members. If we as a sector don’t start challenging the way that the regulator assesses the effectiveness of boards, nothing’s going to change. We can’t be too risk averse or wait to be led: we should feel braver about doing things that are right.

It’s about fairness, it’s about social justice. And it could make boards more challenging on other issues if we get that diversity of thought and experience. It’s just the right thing to do.