Nurole’s interview with Dr Miranda Brawn on launching the UK’s first Black Women on Boards (BWOB) initiative

Dr Miranda K. Brawn talks about launching the UK’s first ‘Black Women on Boards’ initiative, reverse mentoring and how board culture can enable greater diversity and inclusion

Dr Miranda K. Brawn MBA FRSA is a British businesswoman, experienced non-executive director, board advisor, lawyer and philanthropist. 

She started her banking career as one of the first women of colour on London’s trading floor and went on to hold a number of senior leadership roles at JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and other top global financial institutions. She’s held multiple board roles within the public, private and third sectors including the Crownsavers Credit Union, the Black Cultural Archives and Lambeth Council. She currently sits on the board of electric vehicle manufacturer Switch Mobility Limited and The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn’s Investment Committee and Social Mobility Committee as part of the Bar Representation Committee. She is also a Bloomberg News TV and Radio expert contributor.

In January 2016, Miranda launched The Miranda Brawn Diversity Leadership Foundation. Its mission is to eliminate the diversity, equity and inclusion gaps in the professional workplace through education and empowerment for future diverse leaders. The charity launched the UK’s first diversity leadership lecture event series and, in 2021, its first Black Women on Boards” (BWOB) initiative.

There seems to be more talk than ever about diversity at the moment – why does real change still feel so slow? 

One of the major obstacles is that inclusion still does not make commercial sense to a lot of leaders, despite the fact that a diverse, open and supportive work culture has been proven to be more dynamic and inspire greater innovation. 

Reinventing company culture and changing employees’ attitudes and mindsets cannot be achieved overnight, but is urgently required. These initiatives require significant time and investment to get off the ground and become embedded into company culture. It is also a sensitive and emotive topic that many people would rather avoid.

Where should organisations start?

The focus has to be on action and transparency now. There needs to be a strong and consistent message from the leadership on its commitment to DE&I – without this, the message will become confused and lose momentum. More bravery is required for faster change to take place.  

In turn, this strong voice empowers people throughout the business to support one another and embody these messages, which has the potential to transform company culture. Leaders need to be held accountable to deliver on DE&I objectives, otherwise these initiatives can fall by the wayside.  

Reviewing and adapting processes to make sure they encourage fairness is an important step on this journey. How companies manage and recruit staff has been proven to stifle diversity.

When did you start thinking about launching an initiative focused on boards?  

I have wanted to launch this sort of initiative for many years as there has been an obvious gap at board and senior level management for years. 

We wanted to kickstart International Women’s Month by raising the awareness that more needs to be done to hire more women with Black African and Caribbean heritage in the boardroom, especially within publicly listed companies.Our “Black Women on Boards” (BWOB) initiative includes an innovative scholarship programme and reverse mentoring programme with senior leaders. 

How important is it to have diversity initiatives aimed at specific groups (like black women) as opposed to say all underrepresented groups?  

Because although the number of female directors at FTSE-100 firms has increased by 50% in the last five years, it’s mostly white women.

BoardEx data reveals that only around 3% of female board-level roles are held by women of Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) heritage in the UK’s 350 largest listed companies. These are mostly women from Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds. 

Recent research also highlights that for the first time in six years, there are no Black Chairs, CEOs or CFOs in FTSE 100 companies. There is an urgent need to address this unfair and unjust hiring gap with women and men from a Black African and Caribbean heritage. 

Tell us about reverse mentoring and why it is so important. 

It compliments our existing mentoring programmes by allowing our current students and alumni to act as mentors to senior leaders. They will share their perspective and experiences and, in doing so, help those leaders think about diversity, equity and inclusion.

This is so important because everyone can learn from each other. It enables better inclusion and improves diversity in the talent pipeline. This improves empathy and mitigates unconscious bias. This also drives culture change and gives leaders the opportunity to stay ahead of the trends through junior employees and mentees.  

What practical steps can Chairs take to diversify their hiring processes?  

Chairs should be looking at the skill sets that they would ideally want on the board, and then the skill sets they have. By identifying the gaps, they can use this as an opportunity to build in diversity – remembering the inclusion part once board members are hired. 

A practical step for Chairs is to simply look in different places. There are numerous leaders like myself who have access to a large diverse network of senior leaders looking for board positions. Tap into these people and their diverse networks. Make sure that recruiters are changing their processes to source diverse candidates. In 2022, you cannot afford to say that you cannot find the diverse talent, because there are great diverse leaders out there who are board-ready, like myself. 

As well as hiring, are there elements of board culture that need to change to encourage more diversity?   

Research has found that diversity does not guarantee a better performing board – the culture affects how well it performs. Diversity does not matter as much on boards where members’ perspectives are not regularly elicited, respected and valued. To make diverse boards more effective, boards need to have a more egalitarian culture — one that elevates different voices and integrates contrasting insights. 

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about applying for their first board role? 

Having a wealth of experience is a clear advantage. But when applying for non-executive roles, only use 25% of your time to detail what you did in the past. Reserve the other 75% to focus on the ‘so what?’. You need to give the most weight to explaining how you will apply your experience to the board and how you will add value.  

Be mindful that not everyone on the board has to bring everything. You can offer depth in one or two areas and still be a phenomenal director. You need to pitch what you will bring to that particular board and remember you may contribute in different ways to different organisations. 

More importantly, do not give up, and reach out to existing board directors for help and advice. There are a lot of wonderful and supportive board directors who are happy to help you to find your first board role.