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Executive search firms ‘key to FTSE board diversity’

A new study by Birkbeck organisational psychologist Dr Claire Barnes has found that flawed selection procedures and entrenched bias are affecting the numbers of women on FTSE company boards.


In the UK, women hold 29% of FTSE 100 board seats, which has risen from 23.5% in 2015. However, this number refers to the number of non-executive directors. Executive directors, full-time employees who direct the day to day running of the business, have risen by less than two percentage points over the same period.


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.


A series of twelve interviews with board chairs and CEOs of FTSE 250 companies found that there weren’t enough appropriate board candidates. Interviewees claimed to be unbiased in their appointments, but their descriptions of successful female candidates showed clear gender stereotypes, such as “firecracker”, “exceptional woman” or a woman being appointed as a “big, bold step.”



“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,” explains Barnes. “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,”



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



Barnes identified improving selection processes as the key implication for practice. Some chairs and CEOs advocated for using boutique, creative head-hunters that would provide more representative shortlists. Barnes warns against using selection criteria such as “fit”, as this can easily be substituted for “people like me”. She also recommended that 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.



Highlighting the crucial work of executive search companies, Barnes said: “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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