Over the last five years, there has been much deliberation about the need to improve the gender balance of our workforce. It continues to challenge most organisations and is a highly complex issue, woven into the very fabric of our worldwide culture and society.
Working in the recruitment industry, at the forefront of this debate, I have seen corporate culture and behaviour change radically. Over the last 25 years, progress has been made in terms of men and women working effectively together and the awareness of the unique value women bring is growing. However the gender imbalance from middle management upwards remains, and women are still seemingly encountering barriers to stop them reaching senior management in their organisation. So what can be done and who can really take the necessary actions to address this ongoing inequality in the workplace?
Executive Search firms, organisations and women themselves all have an equally important role to play, and all three are fundamentally affected by the unconscious bias our society and its accepted code of conduct has engendered.
Recruiters as the impetus
Recruiters and search firms have a responsibility to produce balanced shortlists and find suitably qualified female candidates.
Recruiters have to be willing to challenge their client's brief or the required skills, but ultimately clients are the final decision makers and they are the ones who have to make the changes. Historically job descriptions and briefs have focused on predominately male-orientated attributes, making a balanced shortlist even less likely. But as our Inspire and Aspire networks demonstrate, there are many talented women out there and recruiters need to be prepared to look beyond the obvious to find the exceptional.
Despite all of these efforts, a highly skilled and capable woman may say no to a role, as she believes it presents insurmountable obstacles, such as frequent overseas travel, which wouldn't enable her to manage both her professional and family life or other commitments. The recruiter or researcher often accepts "not interested" at face value and does not explore this further to get to the real root of the issue. By failing to address this, with either the female candidate or the client, the opportunity is lost to shape the role and make it possible. Instead, many choose the easier option, which in numerous cases involves producing a shortlist of men. As a general rule, rightly or wrongly, men are still viewed as being able to make a full and strong commitment to work, whereas women are often viewed as facing competing priorities, particularly at a senior level.
Recruiters must understand the needs of the candidates in greater depth. If they truly believe they have found the right person for the role they must act on behalf of both the candidate and client alike to find a suitable solution. Recruiters must be brave enough to have these challenging discussions with their clients. However we must also be mindful that not all hires are made by recruiters, so this is only part of the equation.
Cultural change in companies
Our statistics show that whilst our consultants at Harvey Nash are delivering more balanced shortlists, the conversion rate - the number of women actually appointed - remains at less than 8 percent. How can this be possible?
The reasons range from individuals recruiting in their own likeness, choosing someone they are comfortable with, to the aforementioned male oriented criteria. The diversity agenda needs to be led from the top; change comes with buy-in from senior management. Engaging more male champions is critical as they currently hold the influence to make this change.
However, the preference for men that still prevails is also down to women themselves. Feedback from clients highlights, that some women are not performing or representing themselves as well as the male candidates, leading the individuals making the appointment to believe the men are stronger candidates, more suitable for the role in question.
If businesses are serious about improving the gender balance at the top of their organisations, they need to ensure that the interview panel is diverse, and includes at least one senior woman, and possibly even a diversity leader who can offer a balanced view. They need to understand that women have a tendency to under-sell their achievements and experience, whereas men may well over-sell theirs in order to get the job. It is also important to reflect on the skills that are needed in the role as the "softer" skills associated with women are often given less credence, but are actually essential components.
Women in the spotlight
The third element is women themselves. Whether its nature or nurture or societal pressure, the very attributes which are seen as positive in a man, are viewed as pushy and aggressive in a woman. As a result women tend to avoid the spotlight and don't wish to appear boastful.
Men make themselves visible in their organisations and to possible sponsors, often from the very outset of their careers. Sponsorship is an imperative element to the success of any executive, and must be earned. If women want to access the same opportunities, they must learn to do the same.
When interviewing women, it is very common for them to mention their most outstanding achievement only in passing towards the end of the meeting, whereas it is usual for men to have shared all of theirs within the first 25 minutes! Women can certainly take a leaf out of men's books and learn to communicate more effectively, highlighting their skills and being clearer about their requirements, rather than assuming they will be judged on their merits and that the quality of their work speaks for them.
Activating the diversity triangle
Each corner of this equilateral diversity triangle is linked to the other and has a key role to play in increasing the number of women in senior roles and keeping the talent pipeline strong. By being aware of the deep-rooted beliefs and behaviours which affect and drive our decision making processes, we can influence change and make real progress.