How to include more women in a recruitment process for male-dominated leadership roles? That’s the key question that researchers from Cornell University, London Business School and the Stern School of Business at New York University tried to answer in their research.

Recruitment of the top leadership team is a key success factor for organizations, as every success on the market starts with having the right people in the top team. Having a diverse top team can have a strong impact on innovation, which in turn can have a strong effect on the success of any organisation on the long run.

Most of the time recruitment processes start very informally by asking colleagues, leaders, or other people in your network. It is very normal—just think of yourself—that when you need to recruit top talent, you will first create your own list of suitable candidates (= your “first informal shortlist”) in order to move fast. Candidates from your former employers, friends, neighbours, people in your network, somebody who is recommended maybe from a former university mentor—these are typically the people who quickly make it on your informal short list. So basically, you will think of candidates whom you personally know, of people you trust. Those candidates will—whether intentionally or unintentionally—typically receive more of your time and attention than other candidates.

In certain industries (take the tech industry as a salient example), most top leadership positions are taken by men. The prevalence of men usually also leads to men being added to the first informal shortlist as we automatically think that they are more suitable for those roles. Thus, informal recruitment can pose a barrier to gender equity.

So what’s the way out here for leaders?

  • Invest enough time in creating your shortlist—Give yourself more time when thinking about the informal shortlist (sleep it over, discuss it with your partner or mentor, approach it from different angles and networks, both closer and more distant ones; and do not forget about the strong impact of weak ties in your network).
  • Work on the quantity of candidates on your shortlist—Simply make your shortlist longer! (For example, if it includes three candidates, try to expand it to six candidates.) The research results show that this procedure increased the number of female candidates by 33 percent—and then also had an impact on whether a female candidate was finally chosen for the job.

Key takeaway for smart leaders

  • When you start creating an informal candidate list to fill your top positions, take your time to think twice who comes to your mind. If you manage to double the number of candidates that come to your mind, you will be able to choose from a more diverse (and especially gender-diverse) community.
Research reference: This blogpost is based on research findings reported in Lucas, B. J., Giurge, L. M., Berry, Z., and Chugh, D. (2021). Research: to reduce gender bias in hiring, make your shortlist longer. Published 16 February 2021.

Illustration: © Eva Kobin

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