How to help diverse talent enter the boardroom

Failing to hire diverse talent into leadership roles is a commercial mistake

When we talk about ‘diversity and inclusion’ (D&I), we’re really talking about common sense. Believing that qualified candidates naturally come from the same kind of demographic, have the same kind of education, work in the same kind of jobs, and have the same genders and racial origins is not only wrong from a moral perspective: as a premise, it’s commercially and operationally absurd.

And yet, consciously or otherwise, it’s a premise many businesses buy into, even as they talk at length about the value of D&I.

At Bullhorn, we’ve long believed that a range of perspectives, experiences, and skillsets can transform a workplace for the better – but a new report from Invenias (a Bullhorn company) and MIX Diversity Developers has revealed that much needs to be done to drive necessary improvements, particularly at boardroom level.

The report, which surveyed 400 executive search professionals, sheds light on the challenges facing diverse candidates looking to make it to the top – and suggests a way forward for recruiters and clients who want to create a more inclusive, and more successful boardroom.

The importance of D&I  

Recruiters, of course, understand that D&I matters. The report indicates that 89% of recruiters think it will be important to their clients in 2019, and 64% think it will be ‘highly important’.  

They’re not wrong. Because diversity isn’t just about fairness: it’s about performance and profit. Research from McKinsey shows that companies with gender-diverse leadership teams are 21% more likely to have higher bottom-line revenue – a figure that rises to 33% for companies with ethnically diverse leadership teams. A study from Deloitte, meanwhile, shows that inclusive teams outperform non-inclusive teams by 80%.

So, the advantages of D&I are clear and unambiguous, at least among senior business leaders. This is something companies understand in theory – but what about in practice?

Diversity in practice

Candidates from diverse backgrounds face a number of challenges. McKinsey found that, in 2018, women held just 23% of board seats at S&P 500 companies – and the research by Invenias and MIX highlights this disparity further.

When asked if they believe it’s more difficult for women to be appointed to senior managerial roles than men, 57% agree, with the caveat that they do think attitudes are changing, and more women are being appointed to senior positions in general.

A further 17% also agree with the original statement but believe attitudes haven’t changed at all. This means overall that, despite the majority feeling optimistic about the potential for change, an overwhelming 74% believe it’s harder for women to get to the boardroom than men.

The picture is only slightly better for candidates from BAME backgrounds. When asked if it’s more difficult for these candidates to be appointed than candidates from more ‘traditional’ backgrounds, 33% agree – again with the caveat that attitudes are changing – and 26% agree, but believe nothing has changed. Overall, 59% think it’s more difficult for ambitious BAME employees to get ahead.

It’s fair to say that the prospects for candidates from diverse backgrounds are not as bright as they should be. It’s also clear that this is detrimental to hiring organisations. The question we’re left with, inevitably, is: Why?

The challenges of D&I

When asked why it’s more difficult to appoint diverse candidates, recruiters identified a range of different factors. A majority (52%) identified ‘unconscious bias’ as a reason. Hiring managers might prefer Anglo-Saxon sounding names, for example, a preference for candidates who went to prestigious schools, or – most worryingly – a preference for men over women and white people over non-white, and worst of all, they might not even know it.

A further 45% attribute it to clients choosing the ‘safe’ option above all else, which raises questions about why BAME candidates are perceived less safe than non-BAME candidates, and why male candidates are considered inherently safer than women. We can probably draw a straight line from this to the previous question about unconscious bias.

Finally, 45% of recruiters cited a simple lack of diverse candidates. It’s a well-documented phenomenon that many role profiles are designed to attract ‘traditional’ candidates – so it’s more than possible that it’s more about diverse hires being unwittingly put off than diverse hires being truly scarce.

How recruiters can – and must – encourage diversity

Recruiters are a key source of talent for most industries and have a responsibility to ensure that the candidates they provide represent a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. To their enormous credit, recruiters are keenly aware of this.

When asked, many were thinking about the ways that clients could foster diversity within their organisations. Some 70% said that giving more weight to skills and capabilities than experience would encourage more diverse longlists, and this makes sense. Traditional candidates will come with the right company names and educational institutions on their CVs, but this does not necessarily mean they’ll have the right skills.

Meanwhile, 65% said clients should be more open to candidates from different industries and sectors, and 46% believe improving access to more diverse candidates would result in more diverse hires.

Also, recruiters recognise that if they’ve provided a diverse longlist, they have a responsibility to advise clients to choose a diverse shortlist, too – and 43% are actively training consultants on inclusive recruitment practices. Admittedly, 45% aren’t being trained in these practices, so there’s clearly some way to go.

Returning to clients, many of the executive search consultants surveyed agreed that there are tangible actions companies can take to embrace diversity. The most cited example was eliminating gender-neutral language: role profiles, web copy, and other elements that candidates use to get a sense of a company can often be tremendously dissuading to women. Masculine language such as ‘dominant’, ‘take-charge’, and more can persuade a female candidate that she’s ill-suited to the role before she’s even applied.

Meanwhile, 36% believe clients are interested in reducing unconscious bias, and 29% advocate the ‘Rooney rule’ – where each shortlist must have at least one diverse candidate. There is also responsibility on the part of those who are trained in inclusiveness to point out examples of where unconscious bias is hindering the hiring process, and advise clients against it.

These are all worthy measures, and they speak to a broader recognition of the value of diversity in business. But if the study from Invenias and MIX has highlighted anything, it’s that there’s some way to go – and recruiters must advise their clients that normalising more diverse and inclusive hiring will take time and effort. But the long-term reward is that by embracing D&I, businesses will become more effective, more productive, and more profitable.

Peter Linas, EVP of Corporate Development & International at global CRM firm Bullhorn looks at the lack of boardroom diversity.

In this article, you learned that:

  • McKinsey research shows that companies with gender-diverse leadership teams are 21% more likely to have higher bottom-line revenue
  • Eliminating gender-neutral language in role profiles, web copy, and other elements that candidates use to get a sense of a company is crucial to prevent women from being put off
  • Giving more weight to skills and capabilities than experience could encourage more diverse longlists of candidates

Peter Linas

Peter Linas is the EVP of Corporate Development & International at Bullhorn. Peter oversees Bullhorn’s international operations outside North America in his role as Executive Vice President of...

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