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Searching for gender balance at the top

Responding to recommendations in the latest Leadership Foundation report in to leadership and gender, Ben Tucker takes a look at his own industry - executive headhunters to unpick the experience of women in applying for senior jobs. With an unacceptable gender imbalance remaining, Ben looks at how and why people apply for jobs in the sector, as well as how panels make their final decision.
This article is more than 9 years old

Ben is a Partner at Minerva, the executive recruitment agency.

Shortlists for leadership roles should have 30 per cent representation of women. Statistics relevant to this should be published and headhunters should work with key sector stakeholders to develop a code of practice to make sure we play a positive role in improving gender balance at leadership level.

These are the clear recommendations made for my industry – executive search/headhunting – in the Leadership Foundation’s latest report on gender and higher education leadership and hinted at in Randall Whitaker’s piece on this site last month.

Setting up Minerva, we prioritised gender equality as a central part of our work.  Imbalance exists in leadership in all of the sectors we serve and it is unacceptable to have a situation where it is significantly more difficult for one half of the population to fulfil potential than it is for the other half.

We are enthusiastic to take part in any initiative targeted to remove the impediments to women taking on leadership roles. The recommendations made in this report will – if taken up sensibly – serve to focus behaviour in appointment processes but we wonder if more is needed to address some of the deeper issues, in particular with regard to appointments at Vice Chancellor level.

The data

After reading the Leadership Foundation’s report, we looked through the assignments that we have worked on since we started up last autumn, to see what percentages our work so far has produced.

Of the assignments that have progressed to shortlist stage or completed since we began, we measured ratios of women at (a) advertisement response stage, (b) longlist stage and (c) shortlisting stage.

The outcome was heartening, showing progressive increase in the proportion of women at successive stages – 24.9% of advertisement respondents were women, growing to 31.3% at longlist stage and at shortlist 41.9%.

This was pleasing on two levels. First it showed that these shortlists averaged out at well above the quota recommended in the report (a relief given that, although we have been focused on gender balance in our work, we hadn’t been thinking about quotas).

Second, and more importantly, it suggests to us that the intervention of headhunting, if made sensitively and intelligently, can attract a stronger field of female candidates than advertising alone.


The often-stated supposition that women will be hesitant to apply for a job unless they feel sure that they meet all criteria where a man might think that it’s worth a punt, appears to have some validity.

In reality, most job descriptions are written for idealised superhumans that don’t exist; we find that our conversations with candidates in assuring them that they are credible within the field makes an invaluable contribution to their participating in a process.

Of course, the statistics presented here mask a lot of difference between appointments, and the overall picture is more complex. The reality is that, when you’re working on a head of nursing, it’s quite easy to have a 100 per cent female shortlist. And it’s not so easy in engineering or the built environment for example.

Role differentiation

The picture is also varied for different sorts of roles. For heads of service area (academic registrar etc.), the shortlists for roles we have worked on have been 59% female, but for roles as Head of School/Department/Faculty they have been only 33%. For roles on the top table reporting into a Vice Chancellor/Principal, the shortlists have been around 55% female.

This drops right down on average to 30% for Vice Chancellor level, although we have worked on one Vice Chancellor appointment recently where the shortlist had three women and three men.

The picture becomes more complex when you look for a relationship between the ratio of women shortlisted and the likelihood that a woman will get the job. Of the 21 appointments we’ve completed since starting Minerva, ten have been of women.

We have seen women appointed to roles when they’ve been the only one on the shortlist and vice-versa. We should be careful about assuming that a higher level of women on shortlists will necessarily result in a higher proportion of women at the top, although we recognise that unless they are on the shortlist in the first place, they can’t be appointed.

The interview

Working with a broad range of interviewing panels that have different approaches and styles, we see a lot happening that we think challenges a healthier balance of gender at the top.

Good panels are increasingly weaning themselves off the historic dependence upon an hour long interview presentation as key driver in a decision and broadening out the process to meet candidates in a broader range of contexts/with different tenors, as well as triangulating data to take into account more thorough usage of references and other information.

Appointing the person who will perform best in the role versus the person who performs best in interview is challenging, but it is one that we think might influence the balance of appointments that are being made.

There is also a huge diversity in what it is that panels think they’re doing when they interview. Good panels will not only review candidates’ performances as if reviewing theatrical performances, but will also interrogate themselves:  are we asking the right questions to give us the data we need? What efforts are we putting in to questioning our own first impressions and challenging our presumptions about the candidate?

At an personal level, interviewing is an extremely complex process, where the role of intuition and prejudice can never be eliminated and where doing it well depends as much upon self-reflection as on interrogating the candidate.

Panels should be worried by candidates that seem to underperform, particularly if on paper they have a strong track record. It could suggest a weakness in the interviewing process as much as it could indicate a poor performance by the candidate.

Gender issues are present here too, particularly since many interviewing panels are still predominantly male.

Even murkier is the gendered nature of many preconceptions about leadership.  We see that women are often afforded a very limited portfolio of leadership behaviours which are considered acceptable; we recall a particular interview process where a strong female candidate was considered appointable although panel members wondered if she were a megalomaniac.  If the same interview performance transcribed and presented as the words of a male candidate, it would more likely be interpreted as thrusting leadership.

Fortunately, in this case, the candidate was appointed but such outcomes are not always guaranteed, and it seems that women often have to tread a fine line in how they present themselves if they are to win over panels.

The current wider situation, where the proportion of women Vice Chancellors seems to go down year on year, does not reflect well on any of us and it is one trend that we are keen to do whatever we can to improve.

The threat of targets and quotas will create important momentum to ensure progress, but the issues are often deeper and more complex than this latest report suggests.

3 responses to “Searching for gender balance at the top

  1. found this on twitter via @registrarism. very interesting, thank you. Worth thinking more about the distinction between academic and academic related routes, in your ‘role differentiation’ section?

  2. Do you actually have a copy of that report you refer to? I can’t seem to get it downloaded. It seems to be some kind of “members only” thing.

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