Why diversity in public appointments matters

Owing to the lack of diversity in board membership, many boards in Wales do not reflect the communities they serve, with Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic candidates and disabled candidates being currently underrepresented.

The Wales Centre for Public Policy recently published two reports on improving recruitment practices in public appointments and how underrepresented groups could be supported into public appointments.

Pippa Britton is a double Paralympian, and also holds a numbers of senior public appointment positions within groups such as Sport Wales and UK Anti-Doping. Below she shares with us her experience of breaking down barriers to diversity in public appointments.

I am really proud to hold a public appointment in Wales and I often wonder quite how it happened, how did I end up here?

When I think back to my childhood, in many ways it was rather unremarkable. I was born with a disability, but my parents encouraged me to do anything I wanted and brought me up with strong values, a curious and questioning mind, and a desire to help others if I was able.

In some ways I see how that enquiring mind made me a good archer. When I took up the sport, I always wanted to know how I could be better than the last time I practiced and in time I became good enough to get on the British team. I enjoyed a successful career, became a double Paralympian and spent a certain amount of my time as the athlete representative for World Archery. This enabled me to input into making the sport fairer, with my proudest achievement being influencing the introduction of a women’s category into a previously ‘men only’ event.

I think this made me see that I really care that people are treated fairly and, more importantly, to be able to help make the world a more equal place. I know it sounds like a grand ideal, but having a disability has probably shown me some of the barriers that people encounter in all areas of life and it would be great if I could change that in some way. Using my life experience to be able to have conversations with decision-makers is a way to make that change happen.

I’m not sure I ever thought a public appointment would be for ‘people like me’. In my mind I pictured a boardroom filled with a lot of old men in suits, but if you want to make change happen you have to get involved, so I decided to get experience in governance at a more local level.

Every decision made in a boardroom is going to affect someone, somewhere. Thinking about the impact your decision will have on others is a really important skill to bring to the table.

A position was advertised at Sport Wales and I decided to apply. There aren’t many people with a visible disability in public appointments and somehow taking on a challenge seems easier when other people have trodden a path for you, but what did I have to lose? After all, they didn’t have to appoint me if they didn’t think my experience was valuable.

The application process wasn’t bad, but it did present certain challenges.  Although I have been lucky enough to join a board with a mix of ages, genders, and ethnic backgrounds, diversity is still an area that needs to improve in the majority of board appointments. There are still quite a few obstacles to diversity, from unconscious bias, to exclusionary interview processes, to a lack of diversity when it comes to the interview panel, and that’s assuming that you aren’t put off by the paperwork of applying. For me, much of this comes down to where positions are advertised and the kind of language the adverts use. Having a sentence at the end of the form that says ‘we welcome applicants from diverse backgrounds’ never made me feel welcome. Rather, I’d be keen to see a statement that says how much the organisation cares, what is important to them, and why a range of diverse applicants are needed to make a difference to the work they do. If we want to be representative and inclusive then people need to feel included, and not like an afterthought.

We really need to think about the value that diverse thought and experience brings us and find a way to include people who don’t have standard working backgrounds or a ‘typical’ career path. It’s also important if someone isn’t successful that they be told why, and get support to help develop the skills required for the role.

I have been lucky enough to be able to input into the diversity in public appointments evidence review and roundtable and I am delighted that the need for change has been recognised and is being addressed. I know that change will take time, but I hope that more people like me can support the change in the process – every voice helps spark change. I hope the changes that the research recommends help lead to public boards that reflect the diversity and talent that we have so much of in Wales.