Advancing Diversity in the Boardroom

October 13, 2022 | Hamilton, ON
Contributed by Joanna Williams, DeGroote Writer

Akolisa Ufodike is the John Ware Institute founder.

Objections to diversity initiatives are common – especially when the topic is targeted hiring. Opponents often assert that targeted hiring from equity-deserving groups precludes organizations from hiring the most qualified candidates.

“We need to acknowledge that equating targeted Black hiring to the likelihood of an incompetent person being hired is entrenched in racial stereotypes,” says John Ware Institute (JWI) founder and Assistant Professor in the School of Administrative Studies at York University, Akolisa Ufodike.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement, organizations in the US and Canada began prioritizing equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives to diversify their organizations at each level, and to bring different perspectives to the table.

A new partnership between the John Ware Institute, a Canadian non-profit focused on advancing BIPOC board directors, and The Directors College (TDC) is exploring how governance education can help advance EDI initiatives.

“Education is the path towards dismantling discriminatory and systemic barriers which impact equity-deserving groups across Canada,” says Khaled Hassanein, dean of the DeGroote School of Business. He is also currently enrolled in the Chartered Director Program at The Directors College. “Through governance education and meaningful partnerships with organizations like the John Ware Institute, directors can learn the necessary skills and tools to become agents of positive change within our organizations and in the communities we serve.”

Ufodike adds, “This partnership is a natural one as JWI and TDC have mutual genuine aspirations of increasing the proportion of Black and racial directors on Canadian boards, and are both motivated to invest in achieving that.”

To help increase racial diversity on boards, Ufodike says he is incorporating strategies such as placement services, mentoring, and training – similar strategies he found were proven effective in achieving gender diversity.

JWI selected The Directors College to provide governance education training. An important requirement was that the training program, and the credential received, could not be modified – directors need to go through the same training as their non-racialized contemporaries and receive the same credential.

“My commitment to our training partner was that they would never have to compromise their intake criteria for the John Ware Fellows as this is often the most cited pushback against programs such as ours that advocate for intentional diversity,” explains Ufodike.


Identifying systemic barriers Black board directors face

Equitable access: Ufodike says board positions are usually filled from extremely close networks. If people of colour do not have access to these networks, it is challenging to be considered for board positions. “Without intentional diversity – a decision by existing boards to go looking outside of their traditional networks – it is extremely tough for Black directors to get on a board,” he says.

Supply side fallacy: Ufodike notes he has heard arguments that there are no Black directors available because there is no supply. “Any organization that is intentional about diversity will find that a thriving pipeline of qualified Black directors exists,” he rebuts. “JWI has placed 40 Black and racialized directors on the boards of agencies and commissions across Canada over the past two years. Those 40 individuals were always board ready, but it took organizations that were willing to demand their services.”

Expectation of incompetence: Ufodike explains research shows that in professional settings, Black people are often expected to be incompetent. “In our case, we believe there is no room for the competence or effectiveness of Black directors to ever be questioned.”

“In reality, targeted Black hires are just as qualified as anyone else for the role – in many cases the most qualified for the role – but would never have been considered otherwise,” says Ufodike.

He cites the case of US Supreme Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who he says legal scholars agree is perhaps the most qualified appointee ever to SCOTUS. Nonetheless, it took targeted hiring for a Black woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court.


How can organizations across Canada diversify their boardrooms?

To be effective in achieving diversity, Ufodike says organizations need to avoid performative actions. His three recommendations:

1. Empower current Black directors: “This is especially true after Black board members have had the opportunity to prove themselves.” For example, in less than two years, seven of nine Black women directors JWI placed in various organization are now chairing those boards, or chairing a significant board committee. “That is empowerment,” says Ufodike. “Recruiting them to those boards may have started out to ensure racial diversity, but has evolved to the realization that the boards performance has been enhanced by their presence.”

2. Develop talent within your organization: Ufodike recommends executives look at individuals being “developed” to take on leadership roles within their organizations. They need to consider: Do these candidates look like our broader society? Are racial minorities overrepresented at the junior levels in your organization in comparison to senior levels? “If yes, you have a gap, but the good news is you also have a strong pipeline of future Black executives if you are open to developing them,” he says.

3. Collaborate with BIPOC organizations: Organizations like the JWI can help identify and recruit diverse candidates. They are often a good place to start and can be a resource for organizations that do not know where or how to find executive level or board-ready Black executives more effectively than generalist search firms.


About the John Ware Institute

John Ware was an Albertan rancher and Black Canadian pioneer.

The John Ware Institute is named after John Ware, an Albertan rancher and Black Canadian pioneer. L-R: Mrs. Mildred Ware; Robert Ware; Nettie Ware; John Ware. Photo credit: Glenbow Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The John Ware Institute (JWI) is a Canadian non-profit focused on increasing the supply of BIPOC directors for agencies, boards and commissions. JWI has an aspiration of increasing the supply of Black directors in Canada by 100 by 2027. The organization maintains the largest database of Black directors in Canada.

John Ware Fellows are named after John Ware, an Albertan rancher and a Black Canadian pioneer. He went from slave to community leader and successful businessman. In many ways, his story is legendary – a story of the Canadian frontier and a story of overcoming adversity.

“We draw inspiration from John Ware’s legacy. We need more Black pioneers, we need more Black leaders, we need more Black business people,” says Ufodike. “Luckily, in current day Canada there are many modern-day John Ware’s and many more on the path to discovering their inner John Ware.”

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