The Diversity Debate In Executive Recruitment

Diversity among executive ranks is important and comes up for discussion regularly in our field. Most often it’s in relation to gender but also in the context of sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious orientation, age, disability, and so on.

As someone who literally sits between the job market and the employers, and who has done so for the past 17 years, I’ve had plenty of first hand experience in understanding the agendas of employers and the dynamic of the market applying for the roles. And while there have definitely been problems with diversity at the executive and board  level in the past, I’m pretty optimistic about the changes that are happening and the trends we can expect in the coming years.

I discuss it on this podcast, or, if you prefer, you can read a summary of the discussion below. I welcome your comments or contact via email if you’d like to continue a discussion with me.

Breaking The Glass Ceiling For Women

My interest in the subject of gender diversity was piqued a couple of years ago when I attended a gender diversity presentation run in Brisbane by Sonia McDonald, a leadership coach based here. At the event I observed a high level of angst from female attendees about the lack of opportunity or access to opportunity that they perceived in the executive market.

So I decided to do an analysis of our hires from the previous month, during which we had recruited four C-level roles (CEO, CFOs, COOs, etc.). Three of these had been in the not-for-profit sector and across the four roles, there was a total of 800 unique applicants.

In all of these cases, every employer had said that they would love, love, to employ a woman into the role and that it was mandatory that there be a good representation of women on any shortlist. However, of the 800 unique applicants, only 7% of them were women. So while demand was high, supply was low.

These employers are a typical representation of most employers I’ve worked with over the past 17 years. I can say with absolute and complete honesty that in 99.5% of instances where we’ve been recruiting an executive role in recent years, the employer when asked, “Have you a preference for a male or a female?” either said, “I have no preference,” or, “It would be fantastic to have a female take this role on to give us more diversity.”

So it is extraordinarily rare, extraordinarily rare that an employer would say, “We want a man”.

And yet, when we go to the market and we run our headhunting campaigns and we run our advertising campaigns, the level of application from women is usually very low.

One theory I’ve heard to explain this, and one that I’m inclined to agree with, is that women have a higher threshold when it comes to matching job description criteria. For example, if a job ad calls for ten different requirements and a woman only meets eight of these requirements, she is disinclined to apply because she doesn’t fulfil the entire hiring criteria.

Whereas if a man sees an ad with ten requirements and he’s only got three, he’ll still rate himself as being best person for the job so will apply.

This is obviously a generalisation but I think there is definitely some truth to that.

So I would urge women to err on the side of ‘ambition’ and apply for roles, even if you are uncertain if you meet the criteria on paper.

My peers in the recruitment industry,  and certainly employers, would encourage more female applications. They want to see your CVs. They want to consider you for these roles.

In many instances, they’re probably prepared to employ somebody who may need to grow into the role if they are a woman or have other elements of diversity to them. They want to proactively give people opportunity to achieve, which I think is absolutely fantastic.

The Changing Working Life Span

Another dynamic that is working in favour of women is the increasing life span, and thus the increasing period during which most of us can continue working.

The typical 50-65 year retirement age has disadvantaged women to date as motherhood often takes them out of the market for a significant part of their working life. In those years men have developed an experience advantage that women sometimes need to catch up on.

But as actual lifespans continue to increase (many of us are going to easily live to 100 years and much beyond), it’s inevitable that the retirement age is going to increase as well, hopefully  by choice rather than necessity. This means that the motherhood years are going to have less of an impact on the overall careers of women in relation to men.

Proven Performers

Historically women may have had to work harder to prove their ability to perform at executive levels. Thankfully those days are behind us and there is plenty of evidence that women perform equally as well and in many cases, better than men, at the highest level.

I’ve been fortunate to interview many successful women executives on the Arete Podcast; Merren McArthur from VirginAndrea Staines from Transport NSW, Fiona Berkin from Morris Corporation among others. There is plenty of evidence of women being able to take on and deliver outstanding results as CEOs or as Board Directors.

The appetite for female executive talent and the level of proactive desire to promote female executive talent is unprecedented, thus I urge women to take advantage of this climate and to meet that desire halfway by applying for more roles, even if you don’t feel you meet all the criteria.

Breaking The Bamboo Ceiling

Of course diversity is about more than just gender. Ethnic background is another important component of the diversity spectrum.

One example that’s particularly applicable to the Australian market, given our increasing Asian population and our proximity to Asia, is ‘the bamboo ceiling’, a term I first heard about 12 months ago. The bamboo ceiling refers to the relative lack of Asian representation in senior and board roles in business.

Boards and C-level executives are beginning to understand the importance of having people on the team that are more representative of the local population and the trading environment that we’re working in, so hopefully that’s another barrier that will become a thing of the past in the very near future.

Male, Pale and Stale

Despite the perception that men in their fifties or older have an advantage when it comes to recruiting for board roles, I can say from experience that they are now often finding it harder to find a role than in the past. It’s not uncommon for me to hear them say they can’t get board roles because they don’t meet the diversity criteria that boards are often looking for.

There is definitely truth to that. When organisations go to the market and advertise board vacancies, when they brief board recruiters about vacancies, they will often stipulate, “We need more diversity. We want you to attract talent other than older white men.”

Having said that, boards have a duty to their stakeholders, their shareholders, to have the best quality of talent on the board in order to achieve the best outcomes for the business.

This means boards do need to take experience into consideration but it does not mean you should hold back on applying if you don’t think you have the experience to match a pale, stale, male. Diversity and experience both have value so leverage either or both if you have them.

Getting A Jump On The Market

Regardless of any factors you may have in your favour, one thing I always say to executives is that the best advantage you can have is the early starter’s advantage, especially when it comes to board roles.

What I mean by this is, don’t wait for a vacancy to be advertised before approaching an employer of choice. Get in front of the employer before they even know they need you.

You don’t want to be engaging once they’ve already gone to the market to fill the board role. Instead, you want to build a relationship with the Chair before they know they need you so that when the board vacancy becomes available, you are logical first choice.

If you’ve built a relationship in advance with the Chair and the board based on your key achievements and transferable skills and a board vacancy becomes available, they won’t care if you’re male, female, what age you are, what sexual orientation you are, or what religious orientation you are. They want top talent in whatever shape or form that talent takes.

They’ll want to hire you but they can’t hire you if they don’t know you, so once they go to market with a vacancy it’s too late. At that point you’ll just be a face in the crowd of 200 or more applicants.

But if you’re in front of them before they go to the market, you’ll be considered on your own merits and maybe even give them good reason to not go to market in the first place.

So whether you’re a senior executive or a board executive, my strongest recommendation to you is to get in front of your employers of choice, using LinkedIn as a tool for introduction, picking up the phone, ringing them, asking them for a meeting and becoming somebody that they realise may be the best talent for their future operations.

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