Research says organisations which have ‘good’ gender diversity enjoy a competitive advantage. Many businesses employ quotas to ensure they tick certain boxes, while others recruit on merit. We asked Claire Proudlove, Director of Project and Performance Services and Zoe Howgill, Director of Client Relationships, for their thoughts.
It’s about more than just a male-female ratio
For Claire, who’s been with Optamor for 10 years, diversity doesn’t extend just to gender, it’s about cultural balance, skills and experience too, as this offers different perspectives.
“It isn’t just about men and women.” she says, “You want people in a team with strong competence, with good outlooks and with varying backgrounds, as we all see differently, so if you limit it to just that male-female ratio, personally, I think you miss a trick.”
Zoe agrees, asserting that your organisation has to represent your customer base - if you’re delivering a service and your customers come from all walks of life, then your organisation has to reflect that.
“I think particularly at Board level,” she says, “because how can decisions be made of your customer base if the Board doesn’t include people that represent your customer base? That’s whether it’s race, gender… all of those different characteristics. Otherwise you can’t understand fully.”
So what about targets?
It’s clear, then, that having different perspectives in the team can offer competitive advantage, so is it a good idea for businesses to use targets?
Zoe doesn’t think so. “In recruitment, it’s always about the best person for the job, and when we’re looking on behalf of a customer for that best person, it’s important to attract from a wide, diverse pool of people. That way you should encourage applications from people with different, diverse backgrounds.”
Claire agrees that targets aren’t always the answer: “I don’t think you should necessarily force it,” she says. “It’s important to have balance and inclusive environments that nurture everybody, but I’m not a big fan of quotas as they remove the best person for the job. Yes, we don’t want people to be overlooked, but nor do we want someone who is not the right person. For us it’s about attitude, ability, skills and experience.”
The difficulty is…
Though the balance of gender diversity is starting to tip in the right direction across many businesses, it’s still not quite there, something which Claire and Zoe thinks is as much to do with individuals own ingrained behaviours as much as it is to do with outmoded corporate biases.
“By nature there is an expectation that man equals hunter and breadwinner, while society still says ‘soft female, work at home’,” Claire says. “To come into the workplace and have to push against that is easy or difficult depending on who you are, where you are, and a lot of it is circumstance. I’ve worked for organisations where the balance has been hugely wrong, but I made the decision to stay to get the skills and experience I wanted to get me to the place where I am now.”
The challenge often is not the characteristic of the individual, but the way in which it’s perceived within an organisation. Claire laments the times, pre-Optamor, when she’s been in meetings as the expert, but as the only woman in the room, was expected to make the tea. “For me it’s attitude a lot of the time,” she adds, “not the core competence of the individual. It’s how you’re perceived.”
Zoe believes it can be hard to change individual biases, often which are created from childhood and sway the way that not only how people think, but how they approach their careers. The key is being aware of these biases, especially at work, and taking steps to counteract them.
There’s a marked difference between men and women – research reveals that after reading a job description, men will typically apply at 30-40% competence, while women would do so at 70% - another reason why gender differences, particularly at higher levels, still persist. Claire admits she wouldn’t go for a job where she thought she only met 30% of the criteria, as she’d feel that she’d oversold herself.
“Everyone that I’ve spoken to about it, male and female, those stereotypes held to form,” she adds. “Some of it was about the ability to do the job, but a big chunk of it was personal bias, a ‘what if I’m not good enough when I get there?’ I think a lot of it was feelings-based rather than skills-based. Which I think is quite a common theme from a male to female diversity point of view.”
It’s a point which raises the question about job descriptions and the language used. Running a job ad through a tool like Textio often demonstrates how male-coded the phrasing is, which could perhaps be subliminally off-putting to female applicants.
“I find that a really interesting one, because, if I was applying for a job, would I care personally about the neutrality of the language?” Claire asks.
“Unconsciously,” says Zoe.
“That’s the thing,” Claire continues, “I would think that I’d read that and not care, but you don’t know, as you’re absolutely blind-sided by some of this stuff. You only know what you know, so actually, having people in a room who push and challenge that, whether you always understand it , always agree with it, always disagree with it, you can’t argue you it’s not healthy for an organisation.”
That ties in nicely with the concept of empathy and the role it plays in ensuring diversity. Empathy is important to Optamor. Being able to put yourself in a customer’s shoes; to understand fully how the team’s skills and experience compliments, supports and bolsters the customer’s needs leads to a true partnership, one where the right person for the job can be found from that diverse talent pool.
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As Zoe says: “A lot of our customers are going through huge amounts of change and if we weren’t empathetic and didn’t understand that, then we wouldn’t be able to partner with them.”
Delivering a fundamental service line, such as recruitment, means the team absolutely must understand the customer, so that they can offer a service which is reflective of what’s going on in that organisation and its people. The team takes pride in this skill, and have been able to improve gender diversity for numerous clients – securing applications from more women for one in particular - using a variety of recruitment techniques. However, not all businesses are prepared to try something different, even if it does result in an improved balance of applicants.
“I think that is a really big challenge,” says Claire, “because culturally, certain organisations will not be ready for a (possibly) hierarchy to be challenged. But when more enlightened businesses take that approach, it definitely works.”
Ultimately, both Claire and Zoe believe that diversity does give a competitive edge – offering more and wider perspectives which can help drive a business forward. How a company gets there, however, is still up for debate.
If you’d like some help in improving the diversity of your applicants, get in touch.