Can/should executive search help improve gender diversity?

By 6th July 2020 January 27th, 2021 No Comments

An authoritative study published in 2017 and supported by Massachusetts Biotechnology Council and Liftstream sheds new light on the reasons for gender imbalance at the top of life-science companies. The foreword to this in-depth report expresses the need to move from data collection to action.  In this article I take those findings and ask if executive search can actually make a difference.

This chart is produced from the published data:

Gender Chart

The gender gap

There is no question that gender diversity is lacking at senior levels of most life science companies. Equal numbers of men and women enter the talent pipeline but, the difference kicks in at mid-level leadership and becomes progressively worse with each step in seniority.

Academic qualifications and average ages, as well as aspirations to higher positions are equally expressed by both men and women.

Motivation, on the other hand is different. Women want to share knowledge and collaborate, whilst men seek personal financial reward and career progression.

Up to mid-management, most career progression is due to internal promotion. At higher level, networks as well as executive search are more likely to provide for these higher roles. In any case, companies who don’t offer gender diversity will see women be put off by it.

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The legal framework

Across the EU countries and North America, legislation requires equal pay for equal work; and discrimination by gender is only allowed in a small number of specific, pragmatic areas.

Positive discriminationis against the law in Europeas it gives applicants from disadvantaged and under-represented groups preferential treatment in their recruitment process, regardless of their ability to do the job; and thereby discriminates against others.

In the UK, the Equality Act has exceptions allowing employers or organisations to discriminate if being a particular sex is essential for a job. This is called an occupational requirement, and includes jobs which require someone of a particular sex for reasons of privacy and decency, or where personal services are provided. For example, a gym could employ a changing room attendant that is the same sex as the users of that room. Similarly, a women’s refuge could require its staff to be women; and a religious organisation can restrict employment to one sex if the role is for religious purposes. For example: an orthodox synagogue can require its rabbi to be a man.

However, positive action is lawful in Europe because it gives all who qualify for a role, or all who could be made to qualify, an equitable chance.  Employers are permitted to encourage or develop people of a sex that is under-represented or disadvantaged in a role or activity. However, the final selection must always be judged on competence and on a job-related basis.  Targets are appropriate, quotas are not.

What can Executive Search do?

Executive Search, in filling senior positions, is impactful due to the importance and visibility of these roles.

Executive Search brings professional rigour and best practice in evaluating candidates, thus influencing the business to avoid unconscious bias.

A practical way is to ensure that female members of staff sit on the interview panels to ensure a balanced representation of the company. Another practical step is the language used in interview.

A recent BBC article highlighted, even the language used in briefing and interviews can make a difference to candidates interest in a role  David Silverberg , BBC Technology of Business reporter, Why do some job adverts put women off applying?

What should Executive Search do?

Executive Search should bring added value to the business; this includes some challenge and constructive advice to the client, both in helping them define the competencies and experience they need as well as be sensitive to the gender bias issue.

This requires tact and diplomacy from the head hunter, stiffened with a dose of realism.

In today’s life-sciences industry, no one can doubt that there are plenty of competent, successful women already in management positions who are eligible for the highest responsibilities.

It is therefore a head hunter’s duty to bring these candidates forward, allowing clients to hire individuals of either gender, viewing a more balanced leadership team as a normal business situation. Indeed, a blend of experience, genders, cultures and viewpoints should be viewed as a tremendous opportunity for business, rather than be a ‘forced’ decision for cosmetic purposes.

Of course, head hunters need to ensure they are looking in the right places.  Searching too narrowly means that the short list of potential candidates may be strongly gender biased.  We are fortunate in the life sciences that most senior roles are international in character.  That means we are able to cast our net very widely when fishing in the talent pool. Finding a gender-balanced short list is not hard if the search covers half the world.


Things to think about


Your own prejudices?

Internal or unconscious bias can be hard to shift.  It is for us, hiring partners to point this out to the hiring manager and HR, in order for them if not aware, to take steps to moderate inevitable cultural prejudices in a sensible and effective way.

It is sometimes harder than one might think, as beyond the unconscious bias, there is a collective bias often based on the influence one group of people in an organisation has over the rest of the staff. It is not up to the hiring external partner to change the overarching culture of a client’s organisation. Yet, it is our duty to present diversity as a way forward, demonstrating that the competition performs better with more gender balanced teams.

Top executive women better paid than their male counterparts

It is important to note that more often than not, a top female executive, will, although on par with her male counterparts, earn more than her male counterparts. Of course, I am talking about the top 1% of senior executives. Yet it is a trend not to be ignored, mainly the result of scarcity of female top leaders. And it makes their male peers as resentful as women in managerial mid-level roles are, as they cringe about their pays being on average 20% lower than the men in the same positions. It is reverse discrimination.

Both types of gender and financial discriminations are just as detrimental as each other in the well-being of any company, something we, head-hunters are well aware and are fighting as a matter of principle.