Moving the Needle on Board Diversity

Diverse group of individuals in boxes on a screen

In my nearly thirty years working for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, I’ve seen a lot of change. Like so many organizations across the country, I’ve witnessed the Bank slowly transition to a vibrant, inclusive workplace that reflects and genuinely listens to the voices of the communities it serves. But there’s still important work we must do to be fully representative.

The San Francisco Fed recently implemented its Framework for Change that includes a number of audacious goals aimed at promoting ways to achieve equity in our communities and within our Bank. If we’re going to get there, every person in our organization needs to think about where and how we can create change. I stepped into the role of senior vice president of Public Engagement seven months ago, and I’m focusing on ways to creatively expand how we connect with our communities as well as recasting how we approach candidate recruitment for our Boards of Directors and Advisory Councils. Doing this enables us to reach and, more importantly, hear the diverse voices across the Twelfth District.

Our Boards and Councils are the source of some of our best and most direct feedback about what’s happening in our nine-state District. The Bank and our team of economists produce extensive research on the state of the economy, but it’s our Directors and Council members who help us understand if our data matches what’s actually happening on the ground. This real-time, real world feedback has been essential as we’ve navigated the ever-evolving economic consequences of COVID-19.

The problem is, our Boards and Councils haven’t always been the most representative group. They’ve lacked those important diverse voices that we need and value. We have made considerable progress in diversifying our membership in recent years but we’re still not where we need to be. The more our Boards of Directors reflect our District’s diversity—in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sector, and geography—the better we’re able to serve the public with quality deliberations and decision-making.

The audacious goal I’m setting for myself and the Bank is that we achieve full representation—wholly reflecting the communities we serve—on our Boards of Directors and Advisory Councils within five years. To stay transparent and hold ourselves accountable to this goal, each year we will publish a list of our incoming Directors and Council members (pdf) who will provide the broad range of perspectives we seek.

Directors and Council members take different paths on the way to Fed public service. By disrupting the old recruitment model and taking purposeful action to increase our Board and Council diversity, we are freeing our thinking, expanding our reach, and continuing to dig deeper.

Here are the tangible steps we are taking to deepen our community and business relationships and creatively source new candidate pools:

  • Shaking our CEO bias. By looking beyond the obvious C-Suite, we enrich how we are building, nurturing, and sustaining a strong pipeline of future Director and Council member candidates. Positions extending deeper into an organization are often held by a more diverse group of individuals who have a broad view of what is driving their business, sector, or region. They’ve been there all along but went unnoticed because of longstanding recruitment practices—ones that we are changing. ​
  • Expanding what it means to be a Fed Family member. Historically, we have referred to current and past Directors and Council members as Fed Family. We will proactively widen that notion of family and build relationships with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences—not just when we have a Board vacancy. By more intentionally seeking nontraditional sources for connections and then developing and nurturing these relationships, we’re not only gaining valuable and expanded insights into the communities we serve, but we’re also increasing our pool of voices and thought contributors. Voices must be heard, even if they do not have a formal seat at the table.
  • Creating unreserved opportunity. As a Bank we’re dedicated to supporting unlimited opportunity in all facets of our work and that extends to adding opportunities to have a seat at the table. We expanded the membership of our Economic Advisory Council this year by 30 percent and its diversity rose from 46 to 70 percent. We are working to sustain this trajectory to ensure we have diverse candidates with a broad array of voices and views in the pipeline to fill available seats. With a finite nine-member San Francisco Board (as designated by the Federal Reserve Act), and only one position typically turning over each year, space is limited. So we’re thinking outside the box to ensure we have diverse candidates at the ready when these vacancies occur. 

The evidence and impact of our efforts won’t be immediate; it will take time and focused work to get our Boards and Councils to the level of representation we want and need. As our next essential step, we are engaging more intentionally to reach the individuals who represent our region’s diversity and holding ourselves accountable for that engagement.

Just as I’ve seen so much change over the course of my career at the Fed, I know that these bold and impactful shifts in our practices will give our communities a full and representative voice—and ultimately move the needle.​

Robin Rockwood is the senior vice president of Public Engagement at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

This article first appeared on the San Francisco Fed’s Medium channel.

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The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the management of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.