Questionable decisions

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This is how it feels

Last week Lord Davis launched Women on Boards, which examines the gender imbalance at the top level in UK businesses. In 2010, women made up only 12.5% of the boards of FTSE 100 companies. The Equality and Human Rights Commission estimate that, at the current rate of change, it will take 70 years to achieve gender equality in the boardroom.

One half of the problem is to do with the ‘supply side’. Greater proportions of women with the potential to reach the boardroom step off the career ladder lower down to concentrate of family commitments. In addition, women seem to suffer more than men from lack of confidence in their own abilities and sense of worth. For example, they are less likely to initiate  salary negotiations — and when they do, they may get penalised more than men for doing so.

That last point indicates the other half of the problem. Why are the capable women who are still in the game not getting access to a proportionate number of powerful jobs?

From Women on Boards:

Many consultation respondents told us that women with corporate experience were frequently overlooked for development opportunities and that there were differences in the way that men and women were mentored and sponsored, which gave men the edge over their female peers

Last week I was talking about the sponsorship mobility framework. The elite develop their chosen candidates until they are ready to enter the club.

When asked, most chief executives would say they are in favour of recruiting women but, when they make their decisions, it’s the male candidates who get the jobs. Why is that? Are they being hypocrites or do they believe that they are doing the right thing?

An article by Zoë Chance and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School entitled “I read Playboy for the articles” Justifying and rationalizing questionable preferences (pdf)  may provide some answers.

In their study, they asked male students to express a preference for a magazine special issue: either a ‘Swimsuit’ issue (scantily-clad women) or a ‘Year’s top athletes’ issue. For half the group the Swimsuit issues had more sports covered and fewer feature articles; for the other half, the Swimsuit issue had more feature articles and fewer sports. Unsurprisingly, the guys chose the Swimsuit issue more often. When the Swimsuit issue covered more sports, they circled that as the most important criterion, and when it had more features, that was the decisive factor.

A similar effect was noted by Norton et al. (2004) when men tended to prefer male over female candidates for a stereotypically male job as a construction manager. If the male candidate was better educated and the female candidate more experienced, then the recruiters downplayed experience in favour of education. If the male candidate had better experience and the woman had better education, then education was deemed less important and experience was the decisive criterion.

The Chance & Norton article cites several other examples of people manipulating the criteria to justify their questionable decisions on a range of issues.

Funnily enough, I came across this article in the Harvard Business Review website about ‘values-based hiring‘. I’m not implying in any way that the author is trying to retrospectively support a dodgy hiring policy, but one phrase did give me a bit of a chill:

Obviously, you need different criteria to assess if people possess the skills needed to succeed in different positions. But skills don’t tell the whole story. Every organization needs employees who mesh with its core values — the principles that define who you are as an organization and that shape day-to-day business decisions. Employees who do not adhere to a shared corporate culture dilute it, detracting from the essence that gives your company its identity and helps it achieve aggressive goals.

How do you get diversity under those conditions? When it comes to a trade-off between skills and values, which one wins — and does it depend on the candidate?

It could be education, experience, culture-fit, unemployment status or grades — any criterion can be unfairly emphasised to justify a questionable decision. And much of the time, we don’t even know we are doing it.

Further reading

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