Diversity first: why ‘quota’ is a dirty word

The Clear Company's Gareth Headley speaks to GrowthBusiness about quotas, biases, and whether white, middle aged men really are an 'endangered species' on boards.

The UK may be making progress when it comes to gender balance and inclusivity in the corporate world, but it’s slow and arduous. To date, making boardrooms more gender balanced has gained much less traction than is needed to make a real difference. A new directive under negotiation in Brussels will pave the way for the introduction of a rigid mandatory quota system for gender boardroom diversity, and is viewed by many European commentators as a positive step that will force the pace of change.

But are compulsory quotas the right response to improving senior female representation?

Diversity expert and co-founder of The Clear Company, Gareth Headley says quotas should be avoided at all cost. “When you introduce targets, there’s a chance they won’t be reached. When this happens, organisations will choose something to blame their failure upon. The whole intent behind improving the number of women in senior roles will be seen to have failed,” he explains.

“Our experience shows that this could lead to the women hired under a quota scheme to be seen as inferior; as part of an initiative seen by rest of organisation to have failed. These women will have to work harder than their male colleagues just to stand still. When there’s a quota, there’s an implication that these women weren’t the right hire, and that the business had to lower the bar for talent.”
An appointment based on anything other than skill is a huge mistake, says Headley, and while addressing underrepresentation is crucial, quotas are just not the way forward.
“People who use the term ‘targets’ instead of ‘quotas’ are just playing with semantics. And we shouldn’t let them off the hook,” he adds. “We cannot automatically say the mix will be 50:50. Organisations should remember that you really want to end up with the best person for the job. The way they do the job may be different, but their ability to do the job is what’s important.”

Hiring for diversity

One of the biggest requests most recruiters receive now is for candidates from diverse backgrounds. 20 years ago, the recruitment game was a very different one. “We got into diversity through recruitment. It’s what we focussed on. And one of our larger clients at the time was Ford. They had issues around racial relations in their Dagenham plant. Their then-CEO wanted to get a diversity team together. We had the job of recruiting diversity experts for 13 different teams across Europe,” he says.
Back in 2001, diversity professionals didn’t really exist the way they do now, according to Headley. Identifying the skills that made diversity professionals and seeking these people out in the early days helped The Clear Company build a niche as a specialist in the space. They then built a network to retain contact with those people.

In 2010, the duo decided to leave the recruitment world and focus on sign-posting to help businesses to get to where they need to be in their diversity journey. “I compare it to being in the health and safety industry in the 80s. There was a sudden spike in interest and strong backing from the government. Similarly, we were around in 2010 when the Equality Act came into effect. It just made sense for us to focus on diversity and inclusion,” Headley explains.
Since then, The Clear Company has gone from strength the strength. Its key business growth has been in technology rather than consultancy, and it now provides online solutions to clients in financial services, construction and beyond.

Starting the conversation

“The technical side of things is really taking off. We have a number of online solutions for (each vertical). For example, for the insurance market, we’re creating an online toolkit for recruiters to use, to enable them to be free of bias and open to diverse candidates. That toolkit is available market-wide, to 270 organisations,” he adds.

The company adopted a technology-first model when the co-founders realised that most businesses were hiring for diversity, which is an inherently flawed way of approaching this issue. “What organisations do at the moment is put a label on somebody; you are disabled, you are muslim, you are a woman, and so on. They make assumptions on what needs to be done to accommodate employees with these labels. We realised that we needed to build something that could allow businesses to ignore these labels and look at individual circumstances, how they communicate, or commute, or how they use technology. It took us about a year to get to this point but we put out a tender asking developers on how we might approach this. We ended up partnering with an external developer and employed a CIO,” Headley says.

The result was a product called Clear Talent, which showcases candidates based on their skills rather than the baggage that can come from their circumstances and the biases that are inherently attached to the preconceptions of labels. “We launched this in 2014 and it has really taken off. Organisations are getting really high levels of up-take, over 80 per cent,” he adds.

It’s more than a tool for recruiting. According to Headley, the technology starts the conversation. One of their clients had three employees who wanted to go through gender reassignment surgery but didn’t know how to bring it up with their employer. Headley explains that the technology works as a medium for that discussion to happen in a mature, adult way. “That is our single biggest online resource.”

Challenging biases

There are many reasons why minority ethnic, female, or LGBT employees may not make up a significant proportion of senior management roles. According to Headley, it all goes back to looking at circumstances.

“There are different circumstances for women who want to be at senior levels. If you look at lower level admin roles, especially in finance, you will find a majority of female employees. A lot of it is based on decisions of wanting to having a family and retaining a job, and of course balancing both. We shouldn’t shy away from the fact that many women are quite happy to stay at a particular level. It’s not contentious; it’s a life decision based on a lot of circumstances,” he says.

When it comes to inherent biases, Headley says it gets a little more complicated. “Organisations need to take a long, hard look at their talent engagement processes and recruitment process, whether it’s internal recruitment or finding new talent.”

The problem starts when someone says ‘I want to recruit a new board member and I’d like her to be female,’ he adds. “They look at the last incumbent, usually an older white male, and their background, experience, qualifications, and management style and assume that’s what’s needed to get the job done, so that’s what they’ll look for. You can’t start by writing down the successful traits of last recruit and use words like ‘virile’ and ‘aggressive go-getter’ in your ad copy, and expect to attract diverse talent.”

A generic question senior management candidates tend to hear is ‘tell us what is your biggest weakness’. According to Headley, the difference in the way men and women think can colour the way their answers are received. In general, he explains that women tend to answer interview questions more candidly than men.

“Generally, male candidates would say their biggest weakness is ‘impatience, because I like to see results.’ Female candidates are more likely to say ‘organisation, because I need support’. It’s totally honest, but can be seen as a negative trait rather than a positive one. This is an opportunity that employers miss when hiring,” Headley adds.

Employers should always go back to the basics when hiring, looking at the output of the job, the competency required to achieve that output, and what is required to prove the level of competency. “They ignore all these markers and go out to find women who fit a template that was created by a man.

Hiring needs attention

The answer to challenging these biases is to fundamental change the way we recruit, says Headley. “It’s not rocket science, but it needs attention. You can’t just dust off the previous job description. You have to start from scratch. If you make an assumptions you will rule people out. You need to go back to basics every time you recruit.”

Requirements like number of years of experience are outdated and shouldn’t be in job listings, he explains, as it’s yet another assumption employers are making for the job role. “Just because it took the previous guy ten years to acquire the knowledge and skills to do the job doesn’t mean it will necessarily take another candidate that same amount of time.”

Does diversity endanger the rights and position of middle aged white men?

Recently, Tesco chairman John Allan wrote to the Financial Times, expressing his concern that white men are an endangered species in British boardrooms today. When asked about his thoughts on this Headley tried his best to stifle a laugh. “Yes, us white, middle aged men are now a minority in a board where eight out of 11 members are other white, middle aged men,” he says.

“It’s almost as bad as someone saying ‘some of my best friends are black.’ The statement itself is an indicator of a deep-seated level of bias. Anyone worried that white males becoming a minority (because of diversity and inclusion initiatives in businesses), they are misunderstanding the point. That should never be the case. No group should be ‘endangered’. True diversity is a reflection of our community. What we have at the moment is a biased reflection of our community. You need people at the top of organisations who understand your customer base, which is a true reflection of the community you’re serving,” Headley explains.

“Being a white, middle aged man myself, I’d hate to think someone saw me as a minority. You need to stand up on your own skills not for who you are. The business case is that you need the best person to do the job. If that’s not a minority ethnic or woman then so be it. This is why a quota won’t work. You take the best candidate regardless of background.”

Praseeda Nair

Kellen Rempel

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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