Gender and recruitment; some initial thoughts

Published: 11 September 2014


Inequality in the work force is currently the subject of much conjecture.  There are a range of figures and surveys that demonstrate the gap between male and female pay and indeed male and female career progression.  However, whilst the statistics may vary the evidence is clear; female workers do not uniformly enjoy the same upwards trajectory that their male counterparts do.

The reasons for this are many, multifarious and hotly debated.  There is also mixed engagement on the matter across sectors.  The recent publication of the final “Women in Whitehall” report is an example of a structured, research-led approach to reducing the systemic under-representation of women at the top of the Civil Service.  However, there are relatively few strategies like this.  There are often mixed opinions with regard to approaches such as the imposition of Board level quotas for example the “30% Club” (of which Odgers Berndtson was involved in the drafting of the Voluntary Code of Conduct for Executive Search Firms) and by all accounts there are fewer still organisations who explicitly make gender and workforce targets part of their performance management frameworks. 

Where are we?

At present it is too early to ascertain how well any of these approaches are working and as such the solution is somewhat unclear (and inevitably varies from sector to sector).  At Berwick Partners we are involved in supporting a huge range of organisations in appointing to critical roles.  Gender and broader diversity considerations are part of our ongoing discussions with our clients and we believe that search is a sound tool for broadening representation on shortlists.  There are common, somewhat qualitative considerations and concerns that figure as part of our conversations.  There are also some surprising omissions. 

Our clients’ key considerations

In certain professions, the question is around pipeline.  Quite simply there are not enough women within the sector as a whole and therefore it is not necessarily about promoting existing talent.  Radio 4’s Women’s Hour recently gave in-depth coverage to the dearth of vocational career advice available to young women which echoed some of the interaction that we have with our clients.  Quite simply careers in IT, Engineering and various other disciplines have so few female entrants at any level that the prospect of “headhunting” women into the organisation is very unlikely. 

One question we often ask of our clients is if they have a policy / approach to widening gender disparity in their work force.  We then try to implement that into the recruitment process.  The majority of my work is with Higher Education Institutions, who from a STEMM perspective are often recipients of the Athena Swan award at various levels.  This is a perfect example of how we can take a clear message to the market about the University’s attitude to gender and it is effective.  Naturally, the Athena Swan brand is well recognised and there is broad understanding about how rigorous the qualifying process is.  With internal strategies it is harder to explain and “sell” the approach externally and quite frankly there is often very variable implementation of the strategy across the organisation.

Another interesting consideration is quite simply the attitude of the hiring manager; the extent to which a client will talk autonomously about gender diversity and the success or otherwise of their company, is surprisingly telling.  This is of course a cultural parameter that cannot be easily introduced or maintained.  However, it is nonetheless compelling as it is most often accompanied by a vociferous, energetic and genuine ambition for the organisation as a whole which of course is detected by potential candidates, thereby enhancing their personal buy-in and enthusiasm for the role. 

So what is missing?

The omission that I referred to earlier?  Flexible working.  My colleague Tim Baker recently wrote a piece on flexible working which outlined its power to retain individuals.  It is also an excellent way of attracting good candidates yet it is rarely offered as a real option.  Naturally all of our clients are compliant from a policy perspective.  Yet, the prospect of a senior individual joining the organisation and working flexibly is often (although admittedly not always) met with suspicion. 

It is hard to ascertain why the concern prevails.  The reason given most often is that the job cannot be done in less than five days, most of which needs to be on site.  This will of course be true of some roles, yet for many it is hard to believe that technology cannot enable better, more-efficient working that would allow for greater flexibility and / or part time working.  Is it perhaps a question of trust? 

My personal experience is that as long as the technology is sound, the biggest factor in successful flexible working is the bond of trust.  The manager needs to feel assured that the employee is working hard and productively in any location and at any time.  With a new hire, to a certain extent, trust will be measured instinctively, which does of course mean taking a gamble.  However I am sure that many organisations would be pleased to take that gamble if they knew that they were getting the best candidate in the long run. 

There is also the question of reciprocity.  Most experienced senior operators will have worked in organisations suffering from poor morale and understand the dreadfully negative impact that it has upon productivity and quality.  Flexible working has the opposite effect, it is very often a morale booster.  A 2012 report from the CIPD on flexible working recognises that it significantly enhances the employee satisfaction and in turn offers enormous returns.  Indeed our Managing Director at Berwick Partners, Richard Love is a stalwart supporter of flexible working.  “In most cases people work flexibly because circumstances rather than preference dictate it. In my experience, employees who work flexibly have a greater sense of engagement with their organisations. This manifests itself through longevity of service, hard work and the subsequent returns.”


Gender in the workplace is undoubtedly on the agenda, globally and across all sectors.  As evidenced above, delivering outcomes that are meaningful and positively impact upon the success of organisations and indeed employee satisfaction is no easy task, yet that mustn’t detract any of us from the end results. 

For our part?  We at Berwick Partners will continue to engage with our clients in order to understand what they need from a talent perspective and work with them to deliver the best possible shortlists.  We fully understand how important gender is as a consideration within the recruitment process and we are ready to be challenged and indeed challenge back in order to deliver what is required. 

Elizabeth James is a Consultant in the Education practice at Berwick Partners and a crusader for gender equality! 

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