Breaking barriers and building inclusive boardrooms: what we need to do as women leaders

I was a typical teenager who spent much of her time pouring through magazines, devouring articles about makeup, fashion, and relationships. While I would wait in anticipation for my subscription of Seventeen and Cosmo to arrive in the mail, there was always a deep-seated feeling I experienced after reading each issue.

It’s the same feeling I have today when I enter a boardroom for the first time: the anticipation of a new experience and the deflating feeling and sense of invisibility when I rarely see someone around the table who looks like me.

It is important for women who look like me to have a seat at the table.

Years ago, in an interview for a board position, the nominations committee asked me the obvious question: Why do you want to join our board of directors? Without hesitation, I responded, “Because it is important for women who look like me to have a seat at the table.” 

I often reflect on that response, in large part because I have seen the value of representation in governance and how diverse social identities — especially those who are systemically excluded from the boardroom — can meaningfully contribute to effective governance.  

Jean Augustine – The first Black woman elected to the House of Commons

Unfortunately, I have also seen the harm that ensues when boards focus on recruiting Indigenous and equality-deserving people to board positions but do little to ensure their retention.

Boards identify “diversity” as a key objective in succession planning and recruitment but don’t take the time to understand what it means to cultivate an environment where Indigenous and equality-deserving board members can thrive. 

As a Black woman with a law degree and prior board experience, I may be an attractive candidate for board positions. There have been times where I have been treated as the shiny new object, a checkmark on the skills matrix under “racialized.” However, the true mark of inclusion has always been whether the advice I offer, informed by my professional and lived experience, has been valued and has contributed to effective governance. 

Christina Cleveland – RBC’s Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion

Many organizations are in their infancy in confronting systemic barriers and inequities. As a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) practitioner, I have witnessed boards unable to operate because they cannot address issues like race and racism, ableism, or transphobia. Indigenous and equality-deserving board members who speak out are often silenced or reprimanded for challenging the status quo. 

For boards and senior leaders to truly provide a seat at the table they need to confront the systemic barriers that exist in their governance structures and across their organizations. This is no easy feat, but boards and senior leaders who are truly committed to diversity, equality, and inclusion must begin by identifying how they reinforce and uphold these systemic barriers. 

I have seen boards advocate for board members from low-income communities in order to ensure diverse socio-economic representation around the boardroom. However, the same boards continue to require board members to be regular donors to the organization or to participate in board activities and events that are cost prohibitive. Such practices inevitably exclude people who experience socio-economic barriers from having a seat at the table. 

These and other systemic barriers are often invisible. Boards need to examine their entire governance structures and board culture to identify systemic inequities that exist and take steps to remove them. This work is difficult, uncomfortable, and takes time.

Boards that want to truly provide a seat at the table invest their time and money in the same way they would for other important commitments. 

Boards serve themselves well when they take proactive measures to cultivate DEI. Over the years, we have witnessed very public resignations from board members who experience racism, transphobia, and other forms of oppression. Not only does a board, and the company at large, have to deal with the reputational damage, they end up spending significant resources in crisis management. 

Boards that adopt a proactive approach view DEI as necessary for effective governance. They make DEI foundational to how they operate, from succession planning to stakeholder engagement. They lean into uncomfortable conversations, and are introspective and receptive to new approaches and ideas, even those that challenge their traditional ways of operating. 

When it comes to establishing a seat at the table, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. A testament to ensuring that those with marginalized identities truly have a seat at the table is to focus not on getting them into these positions but on their retention, and the sense of inclusion, belonging, and psychological safety they experience around that table.


The honest talk