The pros and cons of gender-balanced shortlists

Organisations are increasingly embracing diversity among employees, with the knowledge that it can only be good for business. But for those organisations that have diversity front of mind when making hiring decisions, what challenges do they face?

Why do balanced shortlists matter?

“Companies that have more diversity in their employees perform better than those that don’t,” says Shannon Roberts, director of talent management Queensland and New Zealand at talent solutions company Hudson.

“There’s growing awareness that having a diverse workforce isn’t just the right thing to do from a social responsibility perspective, but it’s also the smart thing to do from a business perspective.”

“There is a great drum beat in the industry to challenge the old stereotypes,” says Claire Woodhouse, National Recruitment Manager at Fircroft Group, which provides technical recruitment services to the Australian resources and infrastructure markets.

Diverse shortlists challenge the unconscious bias among organisations and hiring managers, Woodhouse says.

“People naturally go for what they know and feel comfortable with, and sometimes getting a more diverse shortlist challenges some of the bias within our own processes and our own companies.”

Unconscious bias

Research by Hays and Insync Surveys examined the role of unconscious bias on candidate selection decisions. 

A group of more than 1000 male and female hiring managers were asked to review a CV of a hypothetical sales manager job and rate their skills. Half the CVs were for a candidate called “Simon”, the other half for “Susan”.

The research found:

  • Among hiring managers from larger organisations, 62 per cent said they would interview “Simon”, compared to 56 per cent for “Susan”
  • Hiring managers in the private sector were more likely to think that “Simon” would have the leadership skills for the job
  • Surprisingly, hiring managers who made more than 20 hiring decisions a year were even more likely to show unconscious bias

Quotas may be inevitable to achieve gender diversity at the executive level, the Hays white paper stated. “But actually changing the mindset is really at the heart of this issue, and is where the time and effort should be going.”

Bring the candidate to life

Hays Regional Director Eliza Kirkby says hiring managers tend to possess “affinity bias”, where they unconsciously rate candidates higher when they are similar to themselves.

Kirkby says recruitment consultants can help hiring managers overcome unconscious bias by “doing what they do best”: talking with hiring managers about why candidates have been selected to be on the shortlist.

“Bringing that candidate to life, telling their story, making that candidate a real person so that that affinity bias or unconscious bias can be somewhat eliminated through that process, as opposed to a hiring manager purely seeing something in black and white on a CV.”

Diversity of thought

A diverse workforce leads to diversity of thought and experience, which will foster creativity and innovation, Roberts says.

“That can help organisations move faster, stay more competitive and innovate in quite a disrupted economic climate.” 

Fostering “diversity of thought” is now front and centre of organisational agendas, Kirkby says.

“A workplace that operates with ‘diversity of thought’ works innovatively to bring new ideas to the table, and creates an environment where all employees can thrive and perform at their best,” she says. 

The challenge of finding balance

Roberts strongly advises against placing just one diverse candidate on a shortlist.

“Studies show that if you only have one diverse applicant in a pool, it’s almost impossible for them to get hired because it highlights how different they are.

“Often recruiters are given the brief to have one woman in the shortlist or one indigenous applicant. I would caution away from that and say you need more than one.”

Employers in the engineering sector are keen for balanced shortlists with a 50-50 gender split, but only 13 per cent of engineers in Australia are female, Woodhouse says.

“It’s very challenging when the pool of candidates out there isn’t reflective of what companies want to achieve.”

Kirby says there are far fewer female engineering graduates entering the workforce than males, and it’s the job of recruiters to be across the full market “to be able to find female candidates within those industries who do have the skills and qualifications to be presented on those types of shortlists”.

Beyond gender: a wealth of diversity

Being open to candidates with less experience, but who might show potential, will open the talent pool to great candidates, Roberts says.

“Look at many diversity factors such as experience, education, cultural diversity, religion, sexual orientation, and disability because then you’re going to get people with different strengths and different potential.”

Woodhouse says businesses will benefit long-term by reflecting the market they operate in.

“If you’re not creating these diverse shortlists, you’re not reflective of your market, and often they are your customers as well as your employees.”

When to push back on client briefs 

Roberts advises pushing back on briefs if a client does not have any support structures within the organisation that would enable a diverse candidate to thrive. 

“You would want to push back if an organisation gave you a brief that was just about hitting quotas and targets, but the organisation didn’t demonstrate that they were really serious about diversity.

“Ask the client: do you have the right support within the company and in the leadership of the business that if you bring on a diverse applicant they can be successful?

“If they don’t, then it’s setting that person up to fail, and the recruiter.”

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Helen Tobler

Helen Tobler is an experienced freelance writer, editor and proofreader. Helen was a journalist for The Australian for 10 years, starting as a cadet and then working as a medical reporter, then sub-editor and digital producer.

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