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Flawed selection procedures and entrenched bias to blame for slow progress to gender equality on FTSE company boards

Research by Dr Claire Barnes, who supervises the Professional Doctorate in Organizational Psychology, identifies barriers to women accessing the most senior roles in top organisations.

Picture of a boardroom

Would-be female directors of the UK’s top organisations are being failed by a system which favours the status-quo, a study by Birkbeck’s Dr Claire Barnes has found.

Through a series of twelve interviews with the gatekeepers of some of the most elite UK board appointments – board chairs and CEOs of FTSE 250 companies – Barnes has unearthed barriers that explain why progress towards equal representation has been so sluggish.

In the UK, women hold 29% of FTSE 100 board seats, which has risen from 23.5% in 2015. While this seems encouraging, it is confined to a rise in the number of non-executive directors who are independent directors employed on public company boards for a few days a year. The number of executive directors, full-time employees who direct the day to day running of the business, has increased by less than two percentage points over the same period. For the next level of companies, the FTSE 250, progress is even slower.

Despite acceptance of the need for greater diversity on boards, Barnes identified a ‘residual awkwardness’ and lack of clarity about diversity and protected characteristics from those interviewed.

Gender bias acts as a barrier – at the beginning of at least five interviews, when participants were asked about women on boards, they assumed that the interviewer was asking them about non-executive appointments. Descriptions of successful female candidates also showed clear gender stereotypes, such as “firecracker”, “exceptional woman” or a woman being appointed as a “big, bold step.”

There was also a perceived shortage of female candidates in the pipeline to executive roles. While acknowledging the talented women in their business communities, many interviewees complained that there weren’t enough appropriate board candidates – not asking themselves how these factors can apparently co-exist and what their roles and responsibilities might be in resolving them.

 “Public companies are largely controlled by well-educated white males, and like other dominant groups, they tend to perpetuate and reinforce the status quo through their biases. When dominant groups are in control, they can find it difficult to deal with inequity head on as it isn’t in their interests to do so,” explains Barnes.

As well as inherent internal bias, flawed selection procedures for board members are hampering efforts to appoint women to the most senior roles.

Nearly all chairs and CEOs interviewed were critical of large executive search companies that take a “cookie cutter” approach to finding new talent.

Barnes’ research has uncovered clear implications to improve current practice and move towards gender equity on board appointments.

Improving selection processes unsurprisingly comes out top. Some chairs and CEOs advocated for using boutique, creative head-hunters that would provide more representative shortlists. Barnes also warns against using selection criteria such as “fit”, as this can easily be substituted for “people like me.” Instead, both executive search companies and chairs must develop more robust selection methods that can deal with assessing more contextual information and achievements and reduce the perceived risk and anxiety that some participants show about recruiting off the usual grid.

Occupational psychologists also play a role in supporting decision-making and developing innovative ways to help clients understand biases.

Barnes also highlights the crucial work of executive search companies: “These organisations have a huge opportunity to seek out and support a wider pool of female talent. Public company chairs should continue with the good work in increasing the number of women on boards and initiate discussions with their CEOs and human resources professionals as to how to build their female executive pipeline.”

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