Diversity applies as much to opportunities as it does to our other characteristics. Harriet Green OBE has many outstanding qualities: attracting attention to her opinions, her abilities and to herself are just three of them, judging by coverage in recent days in The Times and The Telegraph. Her business abilities clearly extend to knowing which elements of a story will capture both an audience’s and a journalist’s attention: her message to other women to contact blue chip company Chairs directly rather than using headhunters or recruitment consultants – and using her own example as evidence of the success of this approach – makes no mention, for example, that she holds an OBE and is a member of the UK Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group. Not everyone who is chipping away at the glass ceiling possesses quite such a diamond-tipped chisel. I hope that it’s not cynicism that leaves me wondering whether chutzpah alone would have been quite so effective.
There are one or two other reasons to stroke one’s chin at The Times’ coverage: despite her assertions, I wonder how many companies on such a scale make CEOs email addresses publically available so that they can receive unsolicited email applications – and those that do may block or screen unsolicited emails. (Do CEOs really have time to process such applications, and wouldn’t they tend to simply pass them on to HR?) And if women are going to respond to this call to arms, what is to stop men from doing the same? (Nowadays, some men not only read newspapers but use keyboards, after all.) And an advocate of the power of social media might, perhaps, tweet slightly more often than @harrietgreen1
My third head-scratcher is why someone so visibly capable ever pondered dealing with recruitment consultants at all: rightly or wrongly (and, as they say in televisual circles, “you decide”), they occupy a social space in corporate life that’s roughly equivalent to that held by estate agents in our extra-mural lives. Maligned, avoided wherever possible, and generally perceived to be duplicitous and over-priced. Although they are not so under-evolved as to spurn the chance for a little PR activity on their own behalf: two of the three consultancies that offered comments to The Times were savvy enough to field a female consultant to do so. (My own experience of recruitment consultancies operating at senior vacancy levels is of a heavy male bias among the consultants, with female employees typically being involved in non-client facing roles, be they senior or more menial: perhaps I’ve been unfortunate.)
So, for those who’ve yet to visit the Palace to receive a medal, what hope can they realistically have of making their mark? The persistence of the glass ceiling is the subject of academic research, although this draws complex conclusions. Egon Zehnder International’s Andrew Roscoe, for example, is researching selection and recruitment criteria, looking to see whether these have remained unchanged too long and if behavioural competences provide a fairer playing field than experience and skills – aspects where women may too easily be denied the experience to gain them. Speaking to The Independent in 2010, he commented that:
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.”
Charlotte Sweeney, head of diversity and inclusion for the EMEA region at Nomura, saw another important factor in an FT interview in 2011:
Unconscious bias is where we apply our attitudes, thoughts and values, without realising, to the decision-making process. The challenge is making everyone aware of this and the potential impacts.”
Another commentator in the same article spoke of the comfort that we feel with those who are similar to ourselves: in recruitment terms, perhaps consultants are comfortable with the concepts of a suit being double-breasted, but not so the person wearing it? Unconscious bias is, by its nature, hard to counter, and flagging examples so that others might then re-examine their own behaviour is cited as one potentially positive route forward: if you are blind-sided as to the inappropriateness of some of your language or conversational gambits, having the folly of your ways politely pointed out gives at least the possibility of improvement. (Although I’m left remembering an old Two Ronnies joke about apologising for breaking wind in front of someone else’s wife, and an old feminist postcard where a meeting chairman has turned to the woman taking the minutes and said to her “An excellent point, Miss Jenkins: perhaps one of the gentlemen would be so kind as to make it for you?”)
Yet other differences in gender statistics are harder to gloss: in most developed countries, public sector organisations have considerably higher numbers of women in senior roles than their private sector counterparts. For Susan Vinnicombe, professor of organisational behaviour and diversity management at Cranfield School of Management, one explanation is that senior appointment processes in many private sector organisations remain ‘deeply secretive’. We’re probably on difficult grounds for drawing conclusions here, but might it be that the public sector’s perceived love of procedure is actually a better guarantee of a more level playing field than private sector practices?
The proof would require us to compare not just selection criteria for recruitment and promotion, but also to validate for unconscious bias and to unearth the extent to which women are being given equal amounts of something identified by Malcolm Gladwell as something critical to success: opportunity. To stipulate particular experiences as promotion selection criteria and to unevenly distribute opportunities for these experiences among the workforce is to skew chances of personal career progression, yet the topic seems only lightly explored.
But if we are getting distorted answers, surely it’s worth reviewing the questions that we are asking to arrive at them? The ‘glass’ ceiling isn’t the only one in operation: as other press coverage continues to show, the pink ceiling remains even more resilient and the non-Caucasian ceiling attracts even less attention. In the meantime, calls from some quarters for the introduction of legal quotas continue to ruffle industry feathers: understandably (although ‘predictably’ is nearer the mark), there is dark talk of ‘regulation’ and ‘red tape’, even though figures from countries where they have been introduced seem to point out their effectiveness.
And surely there has to be a point at which organisations need to ask themselves how far an uneven picture of representation at senior levels reflects on their ability to realise the potential of all their people’s talents. Practical measures around child-care, flexible working, maternity and paternity leave can address the mechanics, but if there are deeper-rooted issues underneath them, they are fundamentally just tinkering.