Women should be measured for top jobs using different criteria if new research being carried out for Egon Zehnder International, one of the world's biggest executive search firms, proves there is systemic bias against promoting female executives.
Andrew Roscoe, the head of EZI's UK business, says the firm is so concerned about the lack of women being promoted to senior levels that it's sponsoring new research to discover whether there is endemic bias in the way in which companies – particularly in Britain – go about their recruitment process. A doctorate is now under way at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies, with the remit to investigate whether this bias is so built into the established process for selecting and measuring senior executives that it works against promoting women.
And if EZI's suspicions are confirmed, Roscoe argues, then the criteria must be changed and a new template introduced. "It's a vicious circle. Fewer women have the relevant experience because they have not been given the chance during their careers to get that experience. That means the talent pool from which companies are drawing is small." That's why Roscoe (inset) believes companies must take a more radical approach and start looking at more sophisticated ways of measuring such as generic skills based on behavioural and other competences. "It's the how, not the what," he says.
Part of the problem is that the measurement tools, assessment and evaluation processes used by companies and executive search firms were devised between 10 and 30 years ago and could well be totally out of date in today's diverse world. "Many companies may think they are forward looking in their thinking but, without realising it, there is a small group of people at the top – usually men – who are choosing women on the same criteria as they select themselves. My own view is that is no longer relevant. If companies want more women, then they are going to have to look at competences other than simple experience. They also need to find other ways to nurture and groom those heading for the board in different ways than those used now and to allow for a more diverse background."
An engineer by training, Roscoe is himself a perfect example of someone whose career has not followed a traditional line but benefited from diversity of experience. After working for Powergen designing computer models for nuclear power stations, he studied for an MBA, switching to advise companies on their corporate finance at the then Cazenove, now part of JP Morgan. Before long, he was headhunted by Egon Zehnder, where he uses his past experience to specialise in the international energy sector.
Having more women at the top, he says, brings huge benefits to companies, and it's paramount that new methods of selecting and promoting be devised to achieve this. "In my experience, having more women in senior positions helps the company overall. Most of them are less confrontational but they also tend to ask the unthinkable."
Women are also held back because so many don't play the same games as men. "They don't spend as much time with their colleagues playing politics; they concentrate on getting the job done and on their families. There's more balance to their lives."
Other factors which have emerged from EZI's own research is that most directors who reach the top as board directors or chief executives have usually spent time in another country – running a big geography has become part of the course for grooming for leadership. This is more difficult for women, he says, for all the obvious reasons, while human resource departments start selecting the leaders of the future when staff are aged between 30 and 38 – bang in the middle of the critical period when most women are having babies or looking after small children. Flexible working – once seen as the panacea to helping women work with more ease – is another old chestnut because in most cases it works against them – the "mummy trap" as EZI calls it.
The UK is far behind its European peers – which have roughly twice as many women on their company boards. A recent EZI report showed that only 11 per cent of company directors are women in the UK compared with around 38 per cent in Norway – where they have adopted quotas – and 32 per cent in Denmark and Finland.
If we don't move fast, the EU may do it for us as it is threatening fixed quotas, he says. "No one wants to be forced. It's much better if we can do this ourselves. If the game has changed, then we need to change the rules."Reuse content