Viewing talent acquisition through a diversity lens
“I shortlist woman candidates only if my client specifically asks for one”. This candid statement came from a recruitment consultant and she has her reasons…“for traditionally male dominated jobs, it takes much less time to put together a short list of male candidates. So it works better from a project completion point of view.”
Talent acquisition is one of the most concrete indicators of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I). Having more women entering your workforce is a reflection of your organization’s D&I footprint. Many of you are seriously pursuing your D&I goals. You are boldly articulating your diversity policies and Equal Opportunity Employer status. But if you look at the achievement on gender diversity targets, a majority are falling short. So what is going wrong?
The example quoted at the beginning is just one of the possible explanations. Other commonly cited reasons include limited talent pool, leakage of talent, resistance from business managers, women not making the mark during selection, need to keep positions vacant much longer in order to find a suitable candidate. These challenges generally get magnified manifold in crisis situations when you need to recruit in large numbers within a short period of time.
These are all valid challenges. However before you begin to deal with all these challenges, it makes sense to distinguish between what’s fact and what’s fiction (or rather, folklore!). Given that women are far and few in many of these positions, the spotlight is generally on them. Even a handful of women leaving soon after joining due to marriage or pregnancy or refusing to travel on project tends to get talked about over and over again. Fueled by confirmation biases, people tend to then generalize these challenges for all candidates who are filling ‘F’ in the gender box.
A few years back, during one of my insighting interviews with the talent acquisition head of a premier company, I was taken aback when he said “band bajake baarati gaye par khali haath laut aaye… dulhan nahi milee” (the groom’s family went with a lot of fanfare but returned empty handed since they couldn’t find a suitable bride). This was with reference to his recent experiences at campus hiring, where for two years in a row his team has failed to recruit a single woman candidate. I shouldn’t have been so surprised, since the analogies hidden within this statement clearly reflect a biased mind. The unfortunate part being that people driving important aspects of gender inclusion are often not aware of their own hidden biases. On top of that, many hiring managers continue to get incentivized on the number of recruitments and not on the diversity mix of recruitments.
It is day to day constraints like these that make your talent acquisition team go back to approaching recruitment in a way that has worked for them in the past. So even though the recruitment goals may have evolved, they continue to stay within their comfort zone and find a way to fit the "square peg in a round hole".
Today, gender inclusion is a priority and many of you are focusing on awareness, unconscious bias training, socialization of diversity policies etc. Sensitization is often the preferred way forward. But before embarking on an organization wide sensitization initiative, it may be useful to pause for a moment and ask yourself a fundamental question – What is your vision of a gender inclusive organization?
In case your answer to this is an organization where people are sensitized to the need for gender inclusion, are aware of potential unconscious biases and are familiar with policies around gender inclusion, then sensitization may be the right approach. However in case your vision is beyond surface level equality and is one that transcends time, people, functions and crisis situations, then sensitization may not be enough.
Sensitization is no doubt powerful. But, does sensitization influence behaviors? Do employees start behaving differently after being sensitized about gender diversity?
This dilemma is somewhat similar to the case of sensitizing a smoker about smoking hazards. Or sensitizing a railway commuter about dangers of crossing the railway tracks. Any guesses on how many commuters are already aware of the perils of crossing the tracks? Your guess is as good as mine. Now how many people actually stop crossing the tracks because of this awareness? Similarly, how many people stop smoking due to awareness of its health hazards?
So the solution is in moving beyond sensitization towards creation of inclusive processes and nurturing inclusive behaviors. The process changes will help to create standardised inclusive practices with minimal scope for variations due to individual biases. These will also help in giving people a nudge towards desired inclusive behaviors. However to make it work, you will need to invest in developing abilities to ensure effective implementation of these redesigned processes.
Now, as a case in point, let me present some practices within talent acquisition that often breed non-inclusion. To make it more context specific, I will look at jobs which have traditionally been more male dominated.
- In sharing job specifications with hiring teams or external hiring partners, business managers often present the profile in a way where it get perceived as a vacancy for male candidates. Given that you are still far from a stage where the default option can be a mixed bag of candidates across genders, hence the short list that emerges here is often an all-male list.
- Job posts are another road block to gender inclusion. Research shows that job advertisements for male-dominated jobs use higher number of masculine words like competitive, dominant etc. They found that when job advertisements were written using more masculine language, then participants perceived more men within these jobs. Further, women found these jobs less appealing. Thus, unless you start using more gender agnostic language in job advertisements, you may inadvertently discourage women from applying.
- Job interviews are another domain where women, especially those at junior or middle level, are often not given a level playing field. For example, comparing interview questions asked across genders for a software engineering based job, the difference was clearly visible. A considerable part of a woman’s interview comprised of questions like – Do you have any plans to get married? Who will look after your kids? Or, would your family allow you to travel onsite? Therefore during a typical interview, while a male candidate is getting the time to talk about their technical/managerial capabilities, a woman candidate has to spend a considerable amount of time defending/justifying her decision to apply for the job.
As stated earlier, if you wish to make your talent acquisition more gender inclusive, then it’s time to tweak (if not re-design) the current processes. First, use existing data to identify the gaps and then design the change. For example, is it possible to mandate the use of the same set of pre-written interview questions for a given job across genders? Is it possible to create job advertisements that are gender agnostic? Today, there are many technology based tools (simple and cost effective) that can be used. For example, there is a tool to test the extent of masculine/feminine words used in job advertisements.
Gender Inclusive talent acquisition is clearly a stepping stone towards greater gender participation in the workforce. But unless you take a hard look at the existing talent acquisition processes through a diversity perspective, your efforts towards sensitization may not yield the desired result. Instead excessive reliance on sensitization may just lead to ‘Diversity Fatigue’!