“Diversity is not an absolute”

I have had such fun this past week! Genuinely! My kind of fun, just to be clear, involves engaging in uplifting dialogue with potential change-makers, with a view to making the world a better place; when I do, in whatever format this is, I come away energised, determined, positive, optimistic … what is not to like in that?! Last week was the first week of the online course Matthew Savage and I are running for international school board members across the world, and the way this course works is that course materials and videos are released every week for 5 weeks, and in the interim we turn to dedicated forums where participants comment on what they have seen, share their experiences and swap ideas; Matthew and I engage in the forums too, and pose additional questions as well as contributing to our experiences too. What is emerging already is a rich resource of ideas, and what we hope for the participants is that they will have been able to reflect on their own practice, and that of their boards, and will be spurred on to take action.

One of the two key themes of last week was diversity on boards and it was a pleasure to tussle again with what diversity actually means. I would like to think that the case for the importance of diversity on boards was well made by now (I recognise that this might be optimistic), but I have noticed time and again that people’s understanding of diversity can vary in its depth. At its shallowest, diversity becomes a tickbox exercise – ie ‘we need to be seen to look or sound a little different, so let’s find some token different people and be seen to be thinking seriously about their inclusion’; and sometimes, the ‘protected characteristics’ which we are now used to, certainly in the UK, can feed this. If we are seen to look for people who are ‘different’, and can satisfy ourselves that we have been open and honest in doing so, then we feel that we are valuing diversity, and our embracing of diversity can effectively stop there.

The question, of course, is … who do we think these people are ‘different’ from? Do we mean ‘different from us’? In which case, are we harbouring a sense of bringing difference into the equation of our board simply as an add-on to a ‘normal’ core …? Gosh. What does that say about our sense of entitlement? Our sense of being ‘right’? At its deepest, though, I believe, an appreciation of diversity is a fundamental appreciation of collective, shared difference – you and I together create wonderful difference simply by talking together, sharing together … and in doing so, each of us is able to gain glimpses into other understandings and views of the world which enrich and enhance our own. In a board context, this leads us to gain a wider, deeper perspective – and therefore to make better decisions. And what is there not to like in making better, more grounded, more informed decisions?! If we could put our effort, therefore, into practising listening to others, and seeing the world through others’ eyes, taking time to find out what this experience is like, then we might have a better sense of being different together. And that difference will itself differ according to who is around the table, because every grouping of human beings is a unique body of people. Diversity is not an absolute; it is, as the word itself suggests, gloriously diverse.

In tackling our understanding of diversity, and in really, truly embracing it as a shared construct, we have to tackle our expectations of others – our unconscious bias – because this gets in the way of us being open to diverse thinking. I was in a meeting just the other day where I made a profound point that came out of left field (I like left field thinking)– and I know it was profound, because it caused people to stop, think and discuss it, and then to note down that this really should be thought about further. Then the Chair drew the discussion to a close by thanking a man (who had made a couple of supportive comments) for raising the issue; it was obviously easier for the Chair to forget that I had raised it than to assume that the eminent man in the (Zoom) room might have raised it. This is still not unusual, I find. Sigh. Bottom line – if a kind, thoughtful Chair who I would regard as largely open to change can make such a mistake, we have a long way to go. (I don’t intend to demonise him or others – just to highlight that we have a lot of work to do).

So, such fun awaits us all if we engage in thinking about diversity! I do believe that if we all took even a tiny little step each day in our journey towards appreciating the diversity we create by joining together with others, then the world could be a vastly better place … and certainly, so could Boards. Our #betterboards course is only for Board members of international schools (although we hope to launch a course for UK schools later in the year); if you are involved in an international school, and would like to join us, then registrations are open for the next course which starts on Monday 19 April – do pass on this link to anyone who might benefit from it.  https://www.lsceducation.com/betterboards-online-course-for-international-school-board-members/

And in the meantime, enjoy creating difference!

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