How I found myself at the center of a diversity row involving a national broadcaster, a regulator, and the U.K. government that shone a light on boardroom representation

Being the story is never easy, especially when you’re the editor-in-chief and CEO of an investigative newsroom. But, at the start of the year, I found myself in the news across a number of publications, including Deadline, The Guardian, The Times, and The Telegraph. The headline was that the British government had blocked a woman of color from being appointed to Channel 4’s board for a third time. That woman was me.

Channel 4 is a publicly owned, free-to-air public broadcast television channel in the U.K. Its tagline reads Altogether Different and its mandate is to drive innovation in broadcasting and to commission programs that showcase Britain in all of its diversity and to stimulate debate. Their vision states “a strong commitment to representing the whole of the U.K. and to  elevate unheard voices from diverse communities…”

So when the tap on the shoulder to apply came, I felt it would be a natural and invigorating fit–despite the data telling me otherwise.

The glacial pace of change

Across Fortune 500 companies, minority women hold just 7.8% of seats on boards, according to a 2023 Deloitte report. And their seventh edition of Missing Pieces, a report published with the Alliance for Board Diversity, found that while companies are diversifying, it’s happening slowly: White men alone still hold the largest share of corporate board seats (55.3%), while women of all races and ethnicities hold 30%. In the last two years, white women gained 95 board seats, Black women gained 86 seats (the largest percentage increase at 47%), Asian and Pacific Islander women gained 24 seats, and Latinas gained just 14 seats.

“At the current pace, it would take the boards of Fortune 500 companies more than two decades for board representation to match the current level of representation of individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in the population,” the report says.

The Fawcett Society in its 2022 Sex and Power Index, the biennial report which charts the progress towards equal representation for women in top jobs across the U.K., documented a glacial pace of change in the majority of sectors in the U.K. Their data also showed that women of color are under-represented at the highest levels in many sectors.

In our industry, the context can be particularly grim. Women of color are suffering from a “culture of exclusion” that is seeing them passed over for the top jobs in media organizations research by Luba Kassova in 2022 found. Kassova’s report, From Outrage to Opportunity: How to Include the Missing Perspectives of Women of All Colors in News Leadership and Coverage, concluded that the challenges facing women of color in racially diverse countries, such as South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S., were even greater, than many others. In Britain, where 37% of the media organizations surveyed, including the Guardian, had a female editor-in-chief, only 1% had a woman of color at the helm.

What it’s like to put yourself forward when you know the odds are stacked against you

Obviously, I do not speak for all women of color. I only have my own lens of experience in career progression to share. And it has broadly, whilst at times challenging, been a successful one. I have held several senior leadership roles across the BBC and launched a number of local-to-global digital services. I was the BBC’s Head of North. I also ran BBC5 Live, the U.K.’s largest network newsroom operation outside of London. I have been responsible for commissioning award-winning podcasts and seasons that help audiences better understand the world around them, including Brexitcast (which showcased the best of BBC analysis), You, Me and the Big C (which led the conversation around cancer), The Sista Collective (which explores U.K. life through the lens of women of color), and Hope High (which investigated county lines from one West Yorkshire town and won the 2021 Orwell Prize for Journalism).

However, raising one’s head above the parapet for senior–including board–roles still requires one to gird one’s loins because the reality is still that you have to jump higher, run faster, work harder, and fit in. For every failure or challenge, there is also adjustment, reflection, and optimism. And without optimism there is nothing. As the writer Alex Steffen says: “Optimism is a political act and optimism which is neither foolish, nor silent, can be revolutionary.”

As I progressed into senior roles, I was determined to be the difference and to help younger generations see that they can succeed and achieve. I carry that ethos with me actively and purposefully. So, when the opportunity to apply for the Board at Channel 4, I put my optimistic and resilient self forward.

I have a passion for public service broadcasting and bring significant senior editorial leadership experience in local, national, and international journalism both at the BBC and in my current role as CEO and Editor-in-Chief at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the U.K.’s largest non-profit investigative newsroom. I felt the Channel 4 Board would be a good fit and the national broadcast watchdog OFCOM, it seemed, agreed.

Their summary praised my senior editorial experience, a clear commitment to regionality, editorial integrity, and an understanding of the boundaries between executive and non-executive responsibilities. They said my interview style is thoughtful and grounded: “She has excellent interpersonal skills from which the panel felt she would be collaborative in her board relationships and provide sound editorial judgment.”

Rejection is nothing new, and whilst never easy, it’s a fact of life. But rejection in the face of seemingly opaque decision-making by the government is problematic. Who is making decisions and is it politically determined? Is it still possible in 2024 that decisions are made on the basis of gender and race? Optimism can on occasion, it seems, belie naivety.

My frustration with the recent appointments is not with the individuals per se, indeed they all bring an enviable strength of experience. But for a national broadcaster mandated to reflect all audiences across the whole of the U.K. to have just one person of color, nobody based outside of London or the South East, and of the recent appointees none with editorial or broadcast experience, this is perplexing and limiting.

The business case for diversity has often been made. However, as Robin J Ely and David A Thomas note, “increasing diversity does not, by itself, increase effectiveness; what matters is how an organization harnesses diversity, and whether it’s willing to reshape its power structure.”

Indeed, it’s time for a new way of thinking. For those organizations who are looking to increase representation at the board level, ultra-competent women of color are ready and waiting.

Rozina Breen is the Editor-in-Chief and CEO of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

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