May 19, 2016
When it comes to diversity on boards, I would confidently say that disability comes in a poor fourth behind gender, age and ethnicity. It’s something I take a great interest in as a blind person, a senior executive who sits on boards and as a start-up champion. While acknowledging a limited perspective, over the years I have noted a lack of disabled representation at board level and when I joined the NonExecutiveDirectors.com recruitment platform, we had a conversation about this. The result was that the organisation and its partners decided to commission some research into the issue. The research involved the Office of National Statistics, EU Equality and Diversity Commission, Department of Business Innovation and Skills, leading academic experts in disability, in social policy and in work and employment, Trade Union Congress (TUC), business surveys, policy documents and more.
What it ultimately showed was that no official or reliable data exists to show the number of disabled board directors. In addition, it seems there is no legal requirement at all to report this information. While the issue of women’s representation on boards has gained real traction in policy and practice over the last decade or so, there does not seem to be any similar movement for disabled representation.
Any data that does exist focuses on the most disadvantaged in this group, such as those not in work or with low skills etc., and the discriminatory barriers they face, but there is nothing to show that disabled people are also high achievers. Disabled people who have talent, skill and experience should have fair and reasonable access to the board room and we cannot ensure this is happening, let alone improving, without us first knowing the numbers of people currently serving on boards. Diversity does not simply mean having female representation, however essential women are in bringing positive changes to the dynamics of a board and skills such as astute risk management.
If there is no data on disabled people on boards – and no legal requirement for public or private companies to report on this – we must ask ourselves if there is a lack of concern about this issue. In companies where employees are supposed to be core stakeholders and thus given proper representation in the decision-making process, there is no requirement for disability on boards to be reported.
In 2016 we shouldn’t be having this conversation, but at the same time, I’m delighted this issue is being highlighted. It’s about time we get people talking about disability on boards in the same way they do about women on boards. In addition to the fact that boards must not miss out on talented people – abled or disabled – disabled people in society must be represented at the highest level so their input and experience can be considered in the decision making process.
For instance, construction companies ought to have disabled persons at executive level who have seen the world in a different way and can help bring insights and solve problems with this in mind. They can be a voice for disabled people and help ensure buildings are developed to meet their needs. From a cost point of view, meeting the needs of disabled people from the get-go is better than finding there are problems afterwards and having to rebuild. Also, one must take into account the costs of non-compliance in terms of fines and litigation. In turn, this point of view is relevant for all sorts of sectors, not just construction.
However – and this is a big however – disabled people must be on boards not purely to oversee disability issues, but to offer their talents, skills and experience at c-suite level.
Neil Barnfather (MBE) is a business consultant, entrepreneur and senior executive.