Expert finds women are self-steering away from top jobs

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Executive search pipeline not bent at the top

New research finds executive search shortlists may not be the only reason for the paucity of women in top management jobs. The problem, which includes women self-steering away from top jobs, starts much earlier in the pipeline.

The research has been conducted by Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, Adecco Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, London Business School and Roberto Fernandez, William F. Pounds Professor in Management and a Professor of Organization Studies, MIT Sloan School of Management. It analyses the sources of women’s underrepresentation in hiring for top management jobs, focussing on the context of executive search.

“Top management is still a man’s business with women accounting for less than 16.9% of top executives and directors in Fortune 500 firms, and only 5.2% of CEOs, despite representing 40% of the workforce”, says Dr Fernandez-Mateo.

“Executive search firms have faced a lot of criticism for keeping women out of top management jobs. Our research, which examined data from one of these firms, found that this organization actually increases the proportion of female candidates, with women no less likely to be hired than men, once they are included in the candidate pool”, Dr Fernandez-Mateo explains.

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The academics, who looked specifically at one Executive Search firm ‘Execo’ (a pseudonym) using proprietary data from 10,970 individuals considered by the company, find that once women make it to the interview with a search consultant, there is no disadvantage either at interview or in final placement. In fact, search firm- placed candidates are more likely to be female than candidates hired via other channels.

“At least in this setting, the pipeline is not being bent at the top”, says Dr Fernandez-Mateo. “What gender differences exist, play out much earlier, at the start of the hiring process, and they are driven by workers’ as well as employers’, behaviour.”

According to the research, while the executive search firm doesn’t disadvantage women once in the pool, search consultants are slightly less likely to interview women than men at the beginning of the process. But women are also self-selecting out of the running for top management jobs. And that’s a big problem.

“The anticipation that employers will discriminate against women on the basis of implicit or explicit job-related, sex-based stereotypes may put women off entering into the race”, says Dr Fernandez-Mateo.

If we want to see more women in the C-Suite then, we’ll have to address not only the interview selection process, but applicants’ own choices which also powerfully affect the pipeline.

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