Board diversity is improving as nonprofits, higher education institutions, and private and public companies aim to add directors from underrepresented groups—people of color, women, LGBTQ+, and younger people—to their boards. Yet, most boards still do not reflect the populations they serve.
The proportion of board members of color on non-profit boards jumped to 22% in 2019, up from 16% in 2017. As of Spring 2023, women hold only 28.9% of corporate board seats, and people who identify as LGBTQ+ hold 0.6% of corporate board seats. While that demonstrates some needed growth, it is still woefully far from representative boards.
It is also an incomplete story. It is not enough to add diverse board members to the ranks; it is also critical to consider whether commonly referenced and understood best practice norms and behaviors for boards support or hinder inclusion. Research has consistently suggested that racial and gender-diverse boards have better governance practices, at least partly because they push themselves towards broader and better thinking as they expand points of view and lived experiences in the room.
We are also cognizant that board best practices derived from research done over the last half-century on high-performing or challenged boards was conducted with more homogenously composed—largely of white men—boards making it difficult to generalize without contextualization. Unsurprisingly, we have observed that many common governance practices—norms and behaviors—can limit engagement and reinforce existing power dynamics on the board. As boards spend more time recruiting diverse members to get more expansive thinking, what happens when their governance practices silence, rather than engage, voices in the room?
We have observed that boards can be particularly vulnerable to the effects of silencing—often unintentional—because so many board practices importantly focus on unity and collectivism.
In Frances J. Milliken and Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison’s research, silence is defined as “a hesitation to speak up about an issue that is of some importance to the individual, but that seems risky to speak about in their organizational or institutional context.” 
Silence, in any organization, can have detrimental effects individually and for the organization. Individuals who are or feel silenced experience dissatisfaction, disengagement, and cynicism in their work. We have observed that boards can be particularly vulnerable to the effects of silencing—often unintentional—because so many board practices importantly focus on unity and collectivism. According to board members of color, only 55% said they always felt comfortable voicing their opinion. Importantly, even fewer, at 40%, felt their opinions were valued, suggesting that board members of color experience the effects of silencing in the boardroom.
Take, for example, a board Chair at Veritas University* who is faced with a difficult upcoming vote. There are murmurs of differing points of view among board members, though no formal conversations have been had at this point. The Chair, understanding that governance best practices recommend the board speak with a single, strong voice, begins to worry about dissent and wants the board to be unified in their support of the President. The Chair works to identify those with viewpoints furthest from their own and the hoped-for outcome of an eventual vote and schedules individual calls with each member. The Chair works to get votes lined up before the discussion and vote, and when the vote finally happens, there is little discussion or conversation—the vote is unanimous.
Six months later, the decision became a subject of a student protest, faculty backlash, and national media attention. Many board members feel caught off guard and frustrated that the decision never had a rigorous debate from the full board. Some even question if they made the right choice and wonder if they should have asked more questions or spoken up.
The power dynamics that the Chair senses with other board members are a critical factor here. Board members often wonder about the effectiveness and consequences of sharing a dissenting viewpoint. A common sentiment from Boards is that real substantive debates and conversations are becoming less frequent at the board table and more common behind the scenes. Many board leaders worry about introducing controversial ideas at the table, fearing it will create a conflicted group that struggles to work together.
The challenge with moving these conversations away from the full board and individual conversations is that power and influence are more likely to silence underrepresented voices, exactly the board members you have worked so hard to bring in and whose thinking is most likely to push you in new directions. We view the boardroom as a healthy place for conflict to surface and for difficult conversations to be addressed head-on. Your board exists to provide you with guidance and oversight, and they can only effectively do that if you allow them to challenge you and sometimes change you.
We also find that when board members feel silenced, they can revert to other unhealthy or unproductive behaviors. They work around formal systems and guard rails that guide board behaviors or triangulate colleagues. They may seek out information from or discuss board work with those beyond the board itself because they cannot access and share information that feels critical to their service. When we see challenging board behaviors emerging, it is a sign that members may feel silenced and unable to contribute.
We recommend that boards facing these challenges consider three practices:
1. Create—or reevaluate—your ground rules that set norms for conduct.
Go through your board practices—norms and behaviors—and ask if they are expanding the voices in the room or silencing them. Many of these are unspoken pieces of the board’s culture and require much introspection, external observation, and evaluation. A governance survey or board evaluation provides insight into how your board works—formally and informally. Consider how tweaks to your current practices could get you closer to bringing a diversity of viewpoints to the board table.
2. Model and create the conditions for healthy conflict in the boardroom.
We have observed that boards are more likely to consider addressing silence after a catalytic event—a scandal, an economic downturn, or other events that call leadership into question. There are often whispers of “who knew what and when” in the wake of difficult times. Take a proactive stance and consider how silence on your board keeps you from making the best decisions for your organization. Research has shown that you must address the temporal and relational dynamics at risk to engage in healthy conflict.  Demonstrate that your board members are not putting interpersonal relationships at risk when they share a differing point of view, and ensure that you allow the necessary time for differing points of view to emerge and be thoroughly shared.
3. Pilot practices that encourage all board members to contribute to discussions.
We often look to research and promising practices beyond the board space for our clients to ensure we bring the most relevant thinking to complex challenges. The research on silencing and inclusion has expanded over the last decade, and you can apply it to your boardroom. You can try new practices in committees or smaller spaces and observe if or how discussion and results change. Are you inviting more viewpoints to be heard? Do your board members feel more included? Are you hearing different voices and different points of view in board conversations? This iterative process will determine what works best for your board.
Examining norms and drawing from these three practices can help organizations truly embody the diversity they so carefully curated around the table. Not only do you want to ensure you have representation at the table, but you are actively working to incorporate the voices, perspectives, and collaborative conclusions to get the best thinking possible. The board is there to ensure the greater good of an organization, and we can support them by ensuring they have the tools, space, and support to be heard.
Have you examined or changed your board practices to be more inclusive? Tell us how or let us help you think about how to get started.
 Buse, Kathleen; Bernstein, Ruth Sessler; and Bilimoria, Diana, “The Influence of Board Diversity, Board Diversity Policies and Practices, and Board Inclusion Behaviors on Nonprofit Governance Practices” (2014). SIAS Faculty Publications. 644. https://digitalcommons.tacoma.uw.edu/ias_pub/644
Majority Action. Equity in the Boardroom: How Asset Manager Voting Shaped Corporate Action on Racial Justice in 2022 (February 2023). https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5d4df99c531b6d0001b48264/t/63ec394a25dc852766ff02a4/1676425549842/MA_EquityintheBoardroom_2022REPORT.pdf
 Milliken, Frances J., and Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison. “Shades of silence: Emerging themes and future directions for research on silence in organizations.” Journal of Management Studies 40, no. 6 (2003): 1563-1568.
 Perlow, Leslie A., and Nelson P. Repenning. “The dynamics of silencing conflict.” Research in organizational behavior 29 (2009): 195-223.