University Chairs commit to a minimum of 40 per cent of both genders on boards

The Chairs of Scotland’s 18 higher education institutions[1] have today [Thursday, 9 April] announced a commitment to achieve gender equality within the membership of their governing bodies, the highest level of governance within a university.

The commitment to achieve a minimum of 40 per cent of both men and women on the governing body [2], with the remaining 20 per cent of either gender, applies to the board’s independent members who are defined as defined as both external and independent of the institution and who should form the majority of governing body membership.

Progress against the commitment will be reviewed in 2018 which gives the sector scope to deliver change as independent members typically serve for a period of three or four years with the option of renewal.

The commitment from the Chairs of universities’ governing bodies is made in recognition that having diverse and suitably qualified members on the governing body is good for governance. Every institution remains committed to attracting and appointing the very best candidates with the skills and experience needed for the role. Today’s commitment represents the best way to achieve gender equality on boards and retain effective and accountable governance.

A minimum requirement of 40 per cent of both genders on boards is recognised as good practice across Europe as it reflects the practicalities of securing gender equality in the membership of small groups[3]. Across Scotland’s eighteen higher education institutions women currently comprise 32 per cent of all independent members[4]. This compares to FTSE 100 companies where women occupied 22.8 per cent of boards positions in 2014 and to public sector bodies where women hold an average of 29 per cent of the seats[5].

The commitment made today can only apply to independent members of universities’ governing bodies who are external and independent of the institution. Most of the remaining members are elected by university staff, students and sometimes university alumni. On average, two students and several members of academic and non-academic staff sit on a university’s governing body[6]. Chairs recognise the right of staff and students to make their own choices with regards to who serves on their behalf and so this commitment cannot and does not extend to these roles. However, if staff and students were to make a similar commitment to achieve a minimum of 40 per cent of both genders amongst their chosen candidates higher education institutions would be able to work towards the achievement of gender equality of the full membership of governing bodies.

David Ross, Chair of the Committee of Scottish Chairs and Chair of the governing body at the University of Glasgow, said:

“Our higher education sector thrives on diversity whether that is diversity of opinion and perspective or the diversity of the 18 higher education institutions themselves so we must do everything we reasonably can to ensure that our governing bodies – the place where strategic decisions are made – reflect and encourage diversity amongst their membership. That is the commitment we are making today.

“I am delighted that the Chairs of every institution have come together to make this commitment on gender equality. Women currently represent around 32 per cent of universities’ independent membership but we are determined to do better than that and achieve a minimum of 40 per cent of both genders in these roles.

“The issue of gender imbalance on governing bodies is not unique to universities. Universities will work hard to attract high-calibre and experienced candidates from both genders and from a wide range of backgrounds to serve as governors.
“This commitment can only extend as far as independent members of the governing body because staff and student stakeholders rightly have the freedom to elect their own candidates. We ask the students and staff in our institutions to consider making a similar commitment.”

Jennifer Craw, Chair of the governing body at Robert Gordon University, said:

“As chair of one of Scotland’s universities I am proud we are making a commitment to achieve a minimum 40 per cent gender balance in our independently appointed board members. Robert Gordon University like many others is seeking to continue to enhance good governance and attract a diversity of talent, knowledge and skills to our board. I believe that the commitment on gender we have made, serves as a clear signal of encouragement to prospective governors.”

Universities are working to increase their appeal to prospective female governors through a variety of means including open and transparent advertisement of vacancies, targeted advertisements through Women on Boards and in specialist press and relaxation of the requirement for previous board experience. At a sector level universities are working with the national body, the Equality Challenge Unit, with a view to increasing the diversity of governing bodies. A report on this work is expected in June 2015.

Responding to the commitment, Professor Pete Downes, Convener of Universities Scotland and Principal at the University of Dundee said:

“I welcome this initiative from the Chairs and will give it my full support as Principal of the University of Dundee. Universities already reflect their mix of stakeholders within the governing body with seats reserved for staff, student and independent members but until now there have been no clear goals for the representation of both genders.

“This is a very positive step. The 40:40:20 approach to gender balance gives institutions some flexibility to ensure we continue to appoint the strongest candidates to what are strategically important roles. This is important for good governance, for the candidates themselves and to ensure that our universities remain competitive.”



  1. There are 19 higher education institutions in Scotland. Whilst the Open University in Scotland is committed to gender equality it is not included as part of this Scotland-wide commitment because its governance arrangements reflect the fact that it operates in all four nations of the United Kingdom.
  2. University governing bodies, often referred to as the courts or as board of governors, are the equivalent of boards within the third sector or private sector.
  3. The campaign for 40:40:20 gender representation in the UK is run by the organisation, Women on Boards. This is well established practice in several European countries.
  4. These figures are correct as of September 2014.
  5. Figure on female representation on FTSE 100 companies is taken from Women on Boards. The figure can be found here. Figures on female representation on public sector bodies is also research conducted by Women on Boards and can be found cited here.
  6. The Scottish Code of Good HE Governance states that a governing body of a university should have no more than 25 members, the majority of which should be independent members. On average, one third of members of the governing body are made up of staff, student and sometimes alumni membership. These members are elected by the staff, students and alumni themselves.

Institutions also have an interest in increasing the diversity of membership beyond gender to include other protected characteristics as well as ensuring that people from a range of socio-economic backgrounds serve on the governing body. This is stated in the Scottish Code of Good HE Governance which applies to all 19 higher education institutions and was introduced in 2013.

The Chairs’ policy statement on gender on governing bodies can be viewed on and reads:

The members of the Committee of Scottish Chairs of HE Institutions believe that gender balance, diversity and equality of opportunity on governing bodies strengthen governance. They have resolved to work together with other members of their governing bodies to do everything which they reasonably can to achieve gender balance in the membership of their governing bodies consistent with existing laws and the Code of Good HE Governance. In particular they will aim to achieve, on a timescale which may vary according to the circumstances of each Institution, a minimum of 40 percent of each gender among the independent members of the governing body; and will measure success by the extent to which this has been achieved for the sector by 2018

HEIs already comply with the provisions of the Code of Good HE Governance by establishing appropriate goals and policies in regard to the balance of their independent membership in terms of equality and diversity. Already a third have expressed their goals for gender balance in quantified terms. This Code will be reviewed in 2016 in the light of experience. The significance of this policy statement is that in advance of that review the leaders of governing bodies are collectively undertaking to use their best efforts to see quantified goals and timetables adopted for gender balance among independent members across the sector.

These will not be quantified goals for the whole membership of Courts/Boards, only of independent members. The composition of Institutions’ governing bodies varies considerably but all have some members who are chosen by groups of staff and students and some also have members chosen by external stakeholders. Chairs recognise the right of all these stakeholder groups to make their own choice but will seek their support for the principle of gender balanced governing bodies and will encourage them to use their best efforts to identify and encourage diverse candidates for the positions on governing bodies which they fill by appointment or election.