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International Women's Day is a day to celebrate the progress that has been made towards equality, but also to consider how women, men and non-binary people can collaborate further to reach the goal of a gender-inclusive world.

To celebrate International Women's Day, Alison Hughes, Partner at ALC Discovery, spoke with Sally Talbot, HR Practice Leader at Per Ardua Associates, about what the firm is doing to improve diversity and inclusion, her views on whether women can succeed in search and recruitment, and what's coming next in the field of gender equality.

At Per Ardua, Sally is responsible for building and driving the HR and talent practice, including placing heads of HR, heads of talent, reward, organisational development and diversity and inclusion. She is also responsible for driving all diversity and inclusion initiatives and products for the firm.

What's the fuss about?

The gender pay gap for median earnings, including full- and part-time workers, was 18.1% in 2016 (Office for National Statistics, 2016). Sally Talbot has a focus on senior female talent and states: "A number of our clients are worrying about the gender pay gap and having to publish it. They are all concerned about where the future talent pipeline is going to come from, especially in relation to senior women." Sally isn't just responsible for the senior female talent agenda within Per Ardua; she also focuses on the broader issues surrounding diversity and inclusion, such as ethnicity and socio-economic background.

Sally is passionate about diversity and inclusion and the issues facing women in senior roles. This is in no small part down to her own life experiences. She is a working mother herself and has conversations about diversity regularly in her role at Per Ardua. She thinks that diversity has "really gained momentum in terms of action in the last couple of years because, with things like the Hampton Alexander Review and companies having to report on the gender pay gap, suddenly there is a spotlight being shone on the issue". The Hampton Alexander Review extends the scope of the previous focus on diversity in the boardroom to the executive pipeline. Sally states: "I don't know any of our clients who aren't talking about [diversity] in meetings or already committed to it."

What can be done?

Organisations and individuals need to be bold for change and come up with innovative and creative solutions. Sally thinks that Peninah Thomson's FTSE 100 cross-company mentoring programme has helped in terms of shifting the balance at the chairman level, but that there is more work to be done.

Market mapping

Sally believes that one of the best ways to create more equality across senior positions is to use the technique of cross-functional market mapping to identify recommended senior women and introduce them to employers who can get to know them and consider them for future positions. She thinks that there isn't a shortcut answer to this problem and that "you have to engage senior stakeholders who are really focused on hiring more diverse candidates, who are happy to meet people and develop those longer-term relationships so that when the right role presents and the candidate is ready to move on, it's an obvious move".

What's interesting about this process is how well it seems to be working for women. The approach is all about building long-standing relationships, and this is something that women tend to excel at. As Sally says, "women like networking, they don't have to commit up front to a search process", and cross-functional mapping removes the pressure and guilt associated with this. Removing pressure in this way could also appeal to women who may not feel they are qualified for a senior-level role. The gender pay gap is clearly well known, but what is less well known is the gender confidence gap. In 2016, Wiebke Bleidorn and colleagues published in-depth research into self-esteem. The research spanned 8 years and 48 countries, and found that women had significantly lower self-esteem than men in most countries. If women don't think they are cut out for a role, then they could be less likely to respond well to direct headhunting propositions. Selection via cross-functional talent mapping helps to position advancement in more palatable terms and hence drives female engagement.

Removing unconscious bias

Alison talked to Sally about ALC Discovery's goal to use assessment to make the recruitment industry more objective and hence positively impact diversity in selection. Sally agreed that there is potential in this idea, as "it removes unconscious bias". Unconscious bias is something we all have – it is created by our experiences and filters the way we view the world. With regards to assessment, Sally believes that "it is a fairer and more objective way of assessing two or three final candidates than a regular interview, where you are going to naturally have a level of unconscious bias".

Another way of tempering the effects of unconscious bias is through training. This involves testing to identify and raise awareness of biases and then providing training to reduce them. Some of the clients Sally works with at Per Ardua have used this kind of training; however, she thinks that "there is never a one-solution-solves-everything and it's a work in progress, but even just highlighting to people where the biases are probably makes them more aware".

The search and recruitment industry: Careers for women

One may think that the recruitment industry isn't particularly suited to women. The industry can be seen as having a culture of long hours and presenteeism and may not be ideally suited to the flexibility that some women desire. Sally, however, feels that the role of an executive search consultant may be the perfect fit for female candidates.

"I think that we're probably slightly bucking the trend in that, if we look at some of the top billers or some of the most successful search consultants out there, there are probably quite a lot who are senior women [...] I don't think it's counter-cultural for women to do well in the search and executive leadership assessment sectors."

There are also other reasons that search and recruitment can work for women. Technology advancements mean that remote working is a more widely accepted option now, and it can create the flexibility that some women need. With this model of working, it is easy to see the results of the work – if you are putting the time in, then the results will be obvious, so it is easy to monitor.

The future: Considering female-to-male decisions, strength in numbers and diversity champions

There is a way to go before we achieve gender parity in the workplace, so are there any interesting techniques to get us to our goal faster? In Sally's view: "You have to look at any point in the cycle that could be a female-to-male decision, whether it's recruitment, whether it's promotion, whether it's mobility decisions, whether it's reward decisions." This gives you multiple places to identify challenges to diversity, and hence multiple places to implement solutions.

It's also important to focus on the percentage of women throughout an organisation and not just think about how many women CEOs we have in top FTSE companies. A female CEO breaking through the glass ceiling should be celebrated, but Sally thinks that it is possible that "at times they can be a bit frustrated and a bit lonely and not always liked by the rest of the organisation." We need to also focus on gender balance, because "the minute you have momentum in terms of numbers then the organisation naturally changes culturally in terms of different role models and I think the culture changes quicker." At the current rate, the World Economic Forum predicts that the gender gap won't close entirely until 2186, and so we should be looking for ways to speed up this journey.

Everyone has an equal role to play in promoting diversity and inclusion. Sally feels passionately about this issue and says: "It's not men versus women, it's about the organisation doing it collaboratively and I do think that probably more focus needs to be on the senior male sponsors and champions of diversity as well, rather than just focusing on the women."

Gender diversity isn't just a moral issue; it's a business strategy decision. In their Global Leadership Forecast, DDI and the Conference Board found that in the top 20% of companies (in terms of financial performance) 37% of leaders were women, whereas only 19% of leaders were women in the bottom 20% of companies. Studies like this have repeatedly shown that diversity produces business results – we would be wrong to ignore them.


[1] Sally is responsible for developing Per Ardua's HR search capability and is also responsible for driving Per Ardua's diversity and inclusion agenda, with a focus on senior female talent. With a background in HR and Executive Search, she has over 20 years' experience placing into key positions across a range of sectors. Sally also has a BSc (Hons) degree in Psychology from the University of Bristol and a Postgraduate Diploma in HR Management.