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Is the best person for the job a woman? Recruitment tips and strategies for headhunters, business leaders and women

We need to talk about recruitment. Specifically it seems we need to talk about recruiting women into key leadership roles, because still I keep hearing there aren’t enough suitable women out there.  So who makes this assessment anyway?  The recruiters? Business leaders? The women?

It seems that all three have an important role to play.  And if we’re to see some significant change, all three need to get active.

I’ve long been suspicious of recruiters who fail to put women forward in their candidate lists: when women have formed the majority of educated talent for almost two decades, when women hold the highest jobs in our political systems and when they’re increasingly taking on the highest jobs in the private sector (albeit still massively outnumbered by men) it’s hard to argue that there’s no suitably qualified women to put forward.  But if their client isn’t insisting on gender balance on recruitment panels then how can you blame the recruiters?  They’re generally paid on a “fee for success” basis after all, so if they perceive it to be easier or less risky to put forward a male than a female, then who could blame them? 

I believe that many recruiters perceive women to be more risky appointments than men, because their career history may not mirror that of their male counterparts.  They may have off ramped.  They may have caring responsibilities. They may be very different to the status quo leadership team.  It’s easier to sell a candidate when their CV looks just like the encumbent.  And when men are more confident in putting their hands up, sending their CVs, making the calls and hunting out the headhunters, who could blame the recruiter for making the most of that?

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So I was interested to see that leading headhunters in the UK have pledged to ensure at least 30 per cent of candidates on long lists for FTSE 350 directorships are female, as part of a voluntary code of conduct aimed at boosting the proportion of women on boards. 

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OK so it’s not all roles, but as with quotas and targets, boards are a good place to start for all the same reasons: they’re easy to measure, change can be relatively swift and there’s a degree of visibility that isn’t always possible with internal appointments.  Let’s hope this is something we’ll see Australian recruiters adopt on a broader scale right here including senior leadership ranks: I’m sure as the women they put forward begin to deliver stronger financial results for their clients it will make the case for referring more business the recruiter’s way… and who wouldn’t want a business model like that?

Focusing on the recruiters doesn’t get companies off the hook though.  The Australian stats prove that almost every business leader could do more to attract, retain and develop their female talent beyond the current levels of just 8% of key executive roles and 3% of CEO positions.  

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Indeed if business was doing a better job of it, we wouldn’t be so reliant on the recruiters in the first place!

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To start with, business leaders must get better at assessing the status quo and opening themselves up to the possibilities that women bring.  It’s not just the business case (though that in itself should be compelling enough!)  It’s about a more sustainable way of doing business.  After all, which business is using age old processes and systems to deliver current day products and services?  We acknowledge the need to constantly innovate in our product and service delivery, so why not revisit our human capital processes as well?

This came through loud and clear in a CEO roundtable I facilitated recently. All of the participants acknowledged the opportunity women present to their leading Australian businesses; some even expressed their frustration that27% of women turn down promotions due to a perceived lack of confidence in their ability to do the job.

One Chairman and ex-CEO lamented that it’s hard to appoint “the best person for the job” when she doesn’t believe in her own abilities; while the lesser qualified and experienced men around her will put their hand up without hesitation.  “How do we get women to be more confident in interviews, like the men are?”, he asked?  My response holds true today: are you sure you want people to convince you they can do a job their not capable of?  Because if that’s how our current “meritocratic” promotion hierarchy works, I’m not sure it’s a model we should retain.

Surely it’s more sustainable to have the most competent and capable person in each role in your business.  Chances are if she’s a woman she’ll do less chest beating than her male counterparts. Women may not be as aggressive in putting themselves forward as their male counterparts; but that doesn’t make them less capable.

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So is it the role of the leader to identify talent, or of the talent to convince the leader?  Or both? 

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 Of course, there is a responsibility for women too in the recruitment process, so what role should we play?  Well firstly, we have to start believing what we hear: if someone tells us we’ve done a good job, that we’re ready for a promotion or that they’d like us to take the lead, we must not talk ourselves down.  Instead we must be gracious: “yes”, and “thankyou”, are a more appropriate response than “oh really, it was nothing, I didn’t do anything special”. 

Women must also stop this rot about being token appointments and being stigmatized by targets and quotas.  This is just nonsense: when a process is broken a leader will step up and fix it, and that’s what targets and special measures are all about.  We don’t keep doing something that doesn’t work just because we did it that way in the past.  And we know that as a society we can’t continue to draw our leadership from just 50% of the population.

And women must apply for roles in the first place, when they’re suitably qualified and experienced to do so.  We must stand up and be counted.  We must put ourselves forward.  We must believe in ourselves, our education, our experience, our strengths, our worth.  And if it doesn’t feel comfortable then remember – it does get easier over time, and you’re not just doing it for yourself.  You’re also doing it for all the women who follow behind you, by your side and in your wings.  It’s time.  It’s right.  It’s now.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this:  Are there enough women? How can recruiters find them? What can business leaders do? Post your comments here on the blog.


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