Can Board Diversity Change an Organization?

As diversity questions continue to dominate the high-tech sector, Twitter has appointed a new board member to help change its profile. On Monday, Debra Lee, chairman and chief executive of BET Networks, announced that she was joining the board. The 61 year old is a well-known African American media business figure who has overseen the Black Entertainment Television’s expansion. As Lee reportedly tweeted following her appointment, she is thrilled to be joining Twitter boards and recognizes how Twitter has already “transformed the media and the world like few other things in history.”

But can Lee’s appointment to the Twitter board deal with Twitter’s broader diversity problems? Likewise, when one shakes up any board do the effects necessarily trickle down to the rest of the organization?


The Current State of the Board at Twitter

Twitter’s current board, with Lee now inplace, has 8 men and 3 women. Notably, in this week’s shake up, they also put Marjorie Scardino, a current board member, in place as chair. As for race, what was an all-White board only a year ago now has at least two visible minority members.

Notably, the current shake up at Twitter has been in the works for months. Rumors about plans to restructure Twitter’s boards were already circulating in late 2015 as Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey fired about 8 percent of the company’s workforce and started to rotate new faces onto the board.

How bad are things at Twitter? In 2014, the Twitter U.S. workforce was 70 percent male, 58 percent white and 34 percent Asian.

However, the company has stated that they want to quickly scale up their female and under-represented racial minority workforce. But does this really start at the top? Does it start at the board?

Other Recent Board Shake Ups

As reported last January, tech companies and Silicon Valley venture capital firms are not the only organizations struggling to address their striking lack of diversity. As became obvious when this past year’s Academy Award nominees were announced, the Academy continues to marginalize the work of Black actors, as well as other Black and visible minority professions. To respond to the crisis, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—where 94% of voting members are White—immediately appointed a visible minority member to their board. In this case, the appointment was seen to be directly connected to the Academy’s problem since voting members are in fact invited by existing voting members of the Academy.

Of course, there are problems with this approach. While one person may make a difference, on boards, one or two visible minority members cannot make any real change without broader support. After all, they are still in the minority. Without allies, there is little hope of bringing about systemic change.

In addition, as recent reports on diversity in the tech sector have highlighted, it is simply not enough to bring women and under-represented visible minorities into organizations if the organizational cultures continue to share more in common with frat houses than equitable workplaces.

If your office resembles a frat house—and here, it is worth pointing out that Twitter did hold a “Twitter frat house” party for its employees in 2015 (a decision it later regretted)—changing who is present in your organization may prove to be a major challenge.


In short, if you can’t create a a culture where women and under-represented visible minority men feel comfortable, it seems unlikely that you can transform the employee make up of your organization. The question then becomes who shapes organizational culture?

While board members may play a role, in actual fact, in many organizations, board members stand far removed from the organization’s actual culture. In many cases, board members have never spent time on the floor or talked to rank-and-file employees.  Cultural change, in many respects, is far more likely to be carried out by mid-level managers than by board appointees. While there is no question that mid-level managers need leadership–a clear message from the top down that diversity matters can make a difference–what board members cannot do is enact and sustain the cultural shifts that permanently change the make up of organizations.







May 17, 2016   Updated :November 16, 2016   board diversity, boards, diversity, diversity and inclusion   

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