The tightrope walk between diversity quotas and being forward leaning

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that gender diversity is critical. There is also almost universal consensus that hiring more women is the starting point to achieve this. The challenge arises from the varied approaches used. The two most commonly used approaches focus on (i) fixing a quota on the number of male and female employees a team can hire or have; and (ii) creating a policy which says, all else being equal, if the firm has to choose between a male and a female candidate, it should choose the female candidate.

The first one makes it the responsibility of the hiring manager to hire a diverse team and brings the spotlight on the vacant spot that needs a female candidate. Which is fantastic. However, this is also what has given us the new terms of “diversity hire” needed to fill the “diversity quota”. Terms which effectively reduce a high performing, talented professional to being a check in the box, and her merit and qualifications to a single word – Woman. Senior women leaders from across the world often note that they have had to work at least doubly as hard as their male colleagues to prove themselves – you throw in the label of being a diversity hire and the perceptions that come with it – and it is an almost impossible challenge for women. I am aware of many head hunters who call up women and ask if they are interested in a company looking for a diversity hire. I am proud to know a number of women who say ‘No’.

And I am proud to know a number of women who say ‘Yes’. These are the women who are willing to be unfairly judged because they believe they can get past the perceptions with sheer hard work and grit. These are the women who believe someone has to break down the barriers and the glass ceilings to make way for more women.

Kirthiga Reddy, the first woman investment partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, shared this in her conversation with WinPE – “When I was considering joining Softbank Investment Advisers (SBIA), trusted advisors asked me: ‘Really, you would join as the first woman partner on the investing team?’ To me, it was contrary: if every women leader thought that way, then the largest tech fund in the world would never have a female partner on the investing team!” That said, I am sure that the term “diversity hire” would not have come up in her case, and hers is a wonderful perspective.

Now, the second approach, the one called being ‘forward leaning’. In my personal view, being forward leaning is an important principle, but is often over simplified into soft footing around the issue. In my many years of hiring for different teams, I have yet to find two candidates that were equally good. The best you have is a #1 and a very close #2 and you believe both would be effective. So, a forward leaning approach, in practice, advocates going for the women candidate regardless of whether she is #1 or #2. Philosophically, that is ok because both candidates are considered equally effective. But in practice, it creates an invariable perception that the final hire, if a woman, was probably #2 and, was hired because gender diversity is a priority.

There is also the perspective from many male professionals, who bring up ‘reverse discrimination’. So, what should firms do? I believe outcome-based quotas are always detrimental and do more harm than good in the long run. A better approach is to have quotas on the input, and follow that through with an objective process all the way to output. In the case of hiring, it means having a quota on the percentage of women candidates in the hiring pool followed with hiring processes that inject objectivity. The concept of forward leaning could be re-interpreted to say that the firm will make conscious efforts to support hiring of women, while maintaining fair processes that focus on the merit and suitability of candidates.

This approach is based on the intuitive premise that once there are enough women in the hiring pool, objective screening processes will yield enough number of strong female candidates. The key is objective selection processes – some examples include blind screening of CVs redacted to remove references to name/gender, case studies and diverse hiring panels. I have seen this play out successfully in a number of hiring instances. I have also seen this during the screening process for the SCL (Supply Chain Labs) Fellowship. A pool of 600 applications was narrowed down to 11 through a screening process that focused on clearly defined objective parameters, performed at different stages by different teams. The final result – 4 of the final cohort have a woman in a full-time founder/CEO/COO role.

Equally, if not more, important is a focus on retaining and promoting the women already at the firm. If we don’t build a workplace culture that is fair and equitable, efforts in hiring women will eventually be put to waste and we will be back to square one. To fix the core issue of workplace culture, a firm would necessarily need to address a number of other issues including unconscious biases and unequal employment practices. And if we can do that, we don’t need to have quotas or be forward leaning – we can get off the tightrope.

(Nupur Garg is the Founder of WinPE – a not-for-profit platform, which promotes transformation in the investing world in favour of gender diversity.)

The tightrope walk between diversity quotas and being forward leaning The tightrope walk between diversity quotas and being forward leaning Reviewed by TechCO on 2/06/2021 Rating: 5

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