The problem with the female talent pipeline

Written by James Meachin on 27 April 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

How's it looking for that May 2020 target? James Meachin has some leadership ideas to build the female talent pipeline. 

Recently, the House of Commons Business Select Committee published a report on Corporate Governance. Within this report, there are some very strong calls for change regarding gender diversity at senior-levels.

In fact, they outright state that the government should set a target that from May 2020 at least half of all new appointments to senior and executive management level positions in the FTSE 350 and all listed companies should be women.

Historically, there has been a much better gender balance at graduate-level roles than for senior positions. The Association of Graduate Recruiters annual survey in 2015 found that females made-up 41% of new joiners on graduate programmes in the UK, and that this figure has been stable for the previous five years.

Whilst there is clearly room for improvement even at this level, these comparatively positive figures have led to a 'jam tomorrow' narrative from many large employers. In essence the argument has been that, given time, the broader base of female talent will filter up into more senior roles, resulting in much gender diversity at those higher levels.

There are many strands to changing this and a key area is inclusive leadership. On-the-job development opportunities – especially stretch opportunities – are the most important driver of new skills.

So why hasn’t this been happening? One point that is clear is that the stereotype of women sacrificing their careers early on to start families isn’t a driving factor. For example, PwC have found that across their organisation more women leave than men at the most junior grades.

They noted that “at this point in their lives very few of these women are at the stage of starting a family”. At more senior grades more men than women leave PwC but, crucially, leavers at all levels are replaced with predominately male experienced hires.

Recruitment at senior levels

Whether it’s the inherent biases which hold women back in the professional sphere, or biases against various ethnicities which we can develop at as young as 6 months, our ability to view others objectively is a significant challenge.

As such, organisations shouldn’t underestimate the importance of delivering rigorous, well structured, expert assessments if women are to have the same opportunity as men to enter senior level roles. Are vacancies filled predominantly by male experienced hires because it’s much harder to find female talent?

Or are equally capable females less likely to be successful when interviewing for more senior level roles? Both points can be contributory factors.

Support and development

Perhaps most critically of all, strong and gender-balanced talent pipelines are key to improving female representation at senior levels. The number of internal female candidates for ‘Head of’ and ‘Director’ roles varies significantly year-on-year and from client to client.

In some years there has been gender parity and in other years, male candidates have outnumbered females by a ratio of 2:1. In essence, the talent pipelines into senior level roles are not yet robust enough to produce a consistent pool of female candidates.

There are many strands to changing this and a key area is inclusive leadership. On-the-job development opportunities – especially stretch opportunities – are the most important driver of new skills. They allow talent to gain new experiences, building new competencies, expanding their understanding of an organisation as well as their network.

However, these opportunities are most likely to be given to ‘the usual suspects’ – people who managers trust and feel most comfortable working with. This is driven by homophily, which is the tendency to associate with, trust, and give opportunities to those who are most similar to us.

 In contrast, inclusive leaders are more objective and deliberate in how they allocate opportunities. Our research has uncovered three competencies that support inclusive leadership. These are:

  • The leader’s ability to create an inclusive culture - such as creates an environment of mutual support
  • Relationships - such as developing a diverse personal network
  • Decision making - such as open to new approaches, rather than resorting to the tried and tested.

By developing inclusive leaders, organisations can, in turn, support more diverse talent pipelines through greater equality of opportunity. This goes beyond specific gender-based interventions such as sponsorship and networking groups, to the heart of leadership’s role in the talent equation.

Towards 2020

As we approach May 2020 and the Business Select Committee’s target of at least half of all new appointments to senior and executive management level positions in the FTSE 350 and all listed companies being women, we increasingly understand the barriers that stand in our way and the actions that will drive real change.

No single step, or change, makes all the difference. There are no silver bullets. But change is important and, with the right actions, we can have 'jam today' instead of tomorrow. Here’s to 2020.

 

About the author

James Meachin is head of assessment at Pearn Kandola

 

Read more about diversity here

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