I’m happy to write that recently I got my first board position. More precisely, I’ve been appointed trustee at the Booth Centre, a UK charity based in Manchester with the mission to bring about positive change in the lives of people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and help them plan for and realise a better future.
This is a very important milestone for me, so I wanted to take the time to savour it whilst I share it with you
- Why did I join a board and you should do it too?
- How did I get the role?
- Why homelessness?
Let’s jump in!
Why did I join a board and you should join one too?
A board of directors must ensure that the company’s corporate governance policies incorporate corporate strategy, risk management, accountability, transparency, and ethical business practices.
Similarly, a board of trustees has overall responsibility and accountability for everything the charity does. Trustees are ultimately responsible for ensuring that their charity complies with charity law and any other legal requirements.
In summary, boards are key to ensuring that organisations deliver on their mission and strategy and do so taking into account the law and relevant regulations.
How does that look in practice? Many of you may be aware by now of the board drama going on at OpenAI — developers of the Generative AI tools ChatGPT and DALL.E – during the last week. They have a very particular structure — they are governed by a nonprofit and have a capped-profit model that’s meant to ensure their commitment to safety.
On Friday November 17, their board of directors fired the CEO, Sam Altman, then appointed a provisional CEO, then appointed another interim CEO, and then on Tuesday they reinstated Altman. All in less than 7 days. It’s still not clear what was the exact reason or who was (or were) the main instigators of the overhaul.
But the board also changed. Before last week, it was integrated by Greg Brockman (Chairman & President), Ilya Sutskever (Chief Scientist), and Sam Altman (CEO), and non-employees Adam D’Angelo (Quora CEO and ex-Facebook), Tasha McCauley (GeoSim Systems CEO), Helen Toner (Director of strategy and foundational research grants at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology).
After the reinstatement of Altman, only D’Angelo remains. Accompanied by two other members:
- Bret Taylor, the new chairman. He has been co-CEO at Salesforce and worked at Facebook and Google.
- Larry Summers, the 27th president of Harvard University from 2001 to 2006. He resigned as Harvard’s president after a no-confidence vote by Harvard faculty, which is linked — among other things — to his 2005 speech in which he reasoned that the main cause for the underrepresentation of women in STEM was due to biological differences between sexes. According to him, “socialization and continuing discrimination” are lesser contributing factors to this underrepresentation.
So, we have now the leading company developing Generative AI products with a board of 3 white men: two tech bros and a man who believes that women are genetically inferior in terms of science and engineering aptitudes compared to men.
What’s not to like?
All that, when we have evidence of the benefits of having women on boards. For example, a 2023 study of women and men directors at more than 200 publicly traded companies on the major stock exchanges in the U.S. and Europe. The results provide key insights on how the presence of women influences boards. First, it turns out that women directors come to board meetings well-prepared and concerned with accountability. Second, women are not shy about acknowledging when they don’t know something, are more willing to ask in-depth questions, and seek to get things on the table. As a result, the presence of women improves the quality of discussion. Finally, “ the presence of women seems to diminish the problem of “pluralistic ignorance” — when individuals in a group underestimate the extent to which others may share their concerns.”
And it’s not only about women’s representation. Basically, we need diverse boards that benefit from members with different identities and backgrounds to drive innovation and successfully tackle the complexity of challenges organisations endure nowadays.
Still, as we see with the case of OpenAI, we rather stick with the “boys club”.
That’s where you and I have a role to play.
How did I get the role?
It was actually only about four years ago that I began to think about broadening my impact by getting a board role. It has taken time, perseverance, and support to find this trustee position that aligns with my values:
- The first time I even considered the idea of being on a board was during a presentation from Fiona Hathorn from Women on Boards at a women in tech conference prior to the pandemic. It was like a door to another world opened for me.
- Then, I joined Women on Boards where I learned about board CVs, was coached on how to interview for board positions, and got me into the habit of perusing their weekly board position openings for 3 years.
- In 2022, I attended a webinar where Hedwige Nuyens talked about how European Women on Boards (EWOB) had been working in Brussels to make a reality the European Union’s Directive that introduces a binding objective of at least 40% of board members of each gender by 2026. At that moment, I realised that being on a board was more than a milestone in my career progression, it was about gender equity in decision-making.
- Next, I joined the EWOB’s C-Level Program. The content, the speakers, and the rest of the cohort were amazing. During 4 months I looked forward to every second Thursday to savour the energy of working with another 39 women leaders for 3 intense hours. I thoroughly enjoyed crafting the presentation about the metaverse and working on the case study of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal.
- Later on, I joined the EWOB partnership team where I helped to build partnerships with UK organisations such as the Institute of Directors (IoD) and spearheaded collaborations with initiatives such as Women in Risk and Control (WiRC).
- During those years when I was keeping an eye on the advertised board roles, there were many people and groups that provided advice and, without maybe knowing it, kept me accountable for finding a board role in spite of the rejections along the way.
- Finally, interviewing for the Booth Centre was a truly enjoyable experience. In addition to its purpose — which I’ll talk about in the next section — the interview process made me feel that my lived experience as an immigrant and my professional skills as an inclusion strategist were both valued by the organisation and would bring complementary perspectives to the organisation. As I wrote before, this truly made me feel welcome — not just “tolerated”. The upside for the organisation? That even if I hadn’t gotten the role, I’d still be thinking highly of them.
Some of you may be wondering the reason that I chose to be a trustee of a charity focused on homelessness and not one that supports women only. After all, I’ve been very vocal about my identity as a feminist.
My answer is that tackling homelessness is a very feminist issue because, among other things, is about
- Tackling systemic problems
- Identifying asymmetry of power
- Human rights
- Epistemic justice
And homelessness is now in need of a feminist approach more than ever because
- When we talk about inclusion, we often forget about homeless people. Moreover, we “classify” them as “people sleeping rough” which actually is not representative of the scale of the problem. Often, our stereotypical mental image of a homeless person is a white man in his 40s-50s to whom we attach labels such as alcohol, drugs, and mental illness. That’s not the full picture.
- Whilst there are about 2,400 people in the UK sleeping rough on any given night, there are more than 83,000 households assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness. This is called statutory homelessness.
- But the problem is even bigger. There are people effectively homeless but neither visible nor in official homeless stats — e.g. severe overcrowding, concealed or sharing. It’s called hidden homelessness.
- The economic crisis puts more people at risk of eviction.
- It’s forecasted that artificial intelligence may have a big impact on the workforce. Those bearing the brunt of the layoffs may be less able to afford their house rent.
- 40% of homeless women state domestic abuse as a contributory factor to their homelessness. Layoffs and financial distress are triggers of partner violence.
- We hear our politicians talk about homelessness being a lifestyle choice, criminalising immigrants, and missing that homelessness is a symptom, not an illness. A symptom of a society that doesn’t “tolerate” what sees as “failure”. That blames those that fall through the cracks of the system, differ from the stereotype of what’s considered a “valuable contributor”, or are labelled as “broken” or “losers”. In summary, a society that it’s rather a group of individuals rather than a community of human beings that are interconnected.
As this was not enough, Generative AI is making it easier to reinforce our biased mental models. When asked to ‘describe a homeless person’ a Gen AI tool answered with the following:
“A homeless person looks disheveled, with grimy clothes and unkempt hair. They move from place to place with all their possessions, often scavenging from bins. Their faces show a certain amount of sadness and loneliness with a broken spirit that tells a story of a difficult journey. There is often a sense of hopelessness about them, a feeling of being lost and out of place.”
And images of homeless people produced by Generative AI tools when prompted to draw a ‘person experiencing homelessness’ often reproduce those harmful stereotypes: white men in their 40s-50s with long beards dressed in stained outdoor hiking jackets.
In summary, no shortage of angles that can benefit from a feminist framework!
I hope by now I’ve convinced you that you can be part of the solution by aiming high — at the board level.
Some ways you can do that are
- Applying for board and trustee positions.
- If you work for a publicly traded company, you have access to a lot of information about the board. For example, who are their members, how much they are paid, or what resolutions they have taken. What does that tell you about who oversees the strategy of your company?
- Check the makeup of the boards of the organisations you admire or of companies that create products you like and compare them with their values and mission statements around diversity and inclusion — do they walk the talk? If not, what can you do as a buyer?
BACK TO YOU: Will you step up to the challenge?
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