Multiple studies show that the business case for female executives is strong.
Among them, a Fortune report finds that although only 5% of Fortune 1000 companies have a female CEO, they generate 7% of the group's total revenue and outperform the S&P 500 index during the course of their respective tenures. Another new study from Weber Shandwick reveals that the world’s most reputable companies have twice as many women in senior management.
Yet despite the business case for women in leadership positions, the percentage of senior management roles held by women in the United States lags behind much of the world, according to the latest Grant Thornton report. A group of analysts, activists, and others have tried to illuminate the reasons why U.S. women, are lagging behind.
The latest study from London Business School and MIT challenges the belief that there’s a pipeline problem. Professors Isabel Fernandez-Mateo and Roberto Fernandez analyzed proprietary information on 10,790 individuals considered by an executive search firm. Their conclusion suggests that executive recruiters don’t eliminate or disadvantage women from the potential hiring pool as other research previously suggested. Instead, Fernandez-Mateo and Fernandez say there are other factors keeping women out.
To reach their conclusion, the researchers first broke down the process executive recruiters use to find candidates for open positions. Hiring these top-level candidates often means that the company outlines their needs to the recruiter, who then spends some time crafting a long list of potential applicants. What’s important to note is that at this stage, companies don’t want to be involved—that’s why they are paying the search firm.
Next, the recruiter screens the list to vet the candidates further. It isn’t until they come up with a short list of qualified candidates that the company gets involved. Presented with the short list, the company decides who to interview and ultimately, to hire.
The researchers chose to study one firm for this analysis. It’s a large one located in the U.K. (not named in the study for privacy) and compared its database to one provided by the Association of Executive Search Consultants to see what the representation of women was at both.
Although the researchers admit that studying one executive search firm is limiting, they did interview others. "Invariably, we were told that search methods are "pretty much the same, it’s not rocket science, it is an established process that you go through," they write.
Building on that, the researchers studied how the process unfolded for 219 open positions the firm needed to fill—and the corresponding 10,970 applicants it screened.
They looked at the gender composition of the initial consideration set and compared it to the proportion of women among active and passive (i.e., anticipation-free) candidates, to determine whether there is any evidence of women taking themselves out of contention for top management jobs. They also analyzed the progress of candidates through the hiring process to see if the search firm was "bending" the pipeline against female candidates or if women were voluntarily dropping out of consideration.
While they did see that there were fewer women being interviewed for management positions, they were only 2.3% less likely than men, which the researchers found to be a small difference, which they chalked up to unobservable variations after confirming that candidates of both genders didn’t differ based on education and previous experience.
Surprisingly, they found that the firm was actually increasing the number of female candidates when assembling their list as compared to what the firm would get if the women selected themselves to apply for the jobs.
When they compared the search firm’s number of women actively seeking executive roles against the industry association’s database of active female candidates, there too was a difference that suggests women are choosing not to make themselves available for consideration. They write:
Although self-steering may reflect preferences for different types of jobs arising for a variety of reasons (family constraints, biased self-assessments of one’s own competence, etc.), the evidence is also consistent with female candidates anticipating demand-side discrimination.
Another study from Harvard found that women are more cautious about promotions, partly because of the impact the increased responsibilities would have on their personal lives. It’s also not far-fetched to think that women are opting out because they anticipate they’ll be discriminated against if they apply. A recent survey from Bridge, a workforce training platform, polled more than 1,000 U.S. workers and found that twice as many women as men say they have witnessed gender discrimination at work in the last 12 months (29% vs. 16%) and over a third (31%) of both men and women see the most discrimination in gender bias for promotions and filling leadership positions.
The researchers found that by eliminating this anticipation of discrimination and focusing on passive candidates (those who haven’t actively expressed a desire to move to an management position) the proportion of women in the pool was higher. "We also confirmed that there is no gender difference when men and women compete for the same job," they write.
The researchers admit that the study is limited by the fact that it’s difficult to fully identify the true pool of qualified female applicants, implying that women may be self-selecting out in even greater numbers than found here. There’s also no way to know why the recruiters and employers are hiring who they hire.
Despite those shortcomings, the researchers conclude that companies interested in diversifying their candidate pools for management positions may be more likely to use search firms.
They write: "Several of the consultants that we interviewed suggested that clients often hire them to perform "diversity searches." These consultants believe that it is more feasible for them to explicitly consider gender as a search criterion than it would be for human resource managers."