How Executive Search Firms Exclude Women

Businesswoman Standing Out From the Crowd - IsolatedBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

A new study of executive search firms delves into the way common headhunting practices can keep women out of top jobs by perpetuating the status quo. According to the researchers, when women are included on candidate slates, they’re commonly considered risky choices, regardless of their qualifications for the job, simply because they may not fit the stereotypical notion of a leader at the firm in question.

Women candidates face questions about loyalty, stability, and competence in ways that men simply don’t. And men are often considered the “default” candidate type, with women representing a “different” choice. Even when search consultants do try to include more women on long and short lists, clients will change their search criteria over time, the end result of which is weeding out women from the candidate slate.

The research zeros in on organizational factors that keep male dominated teams male dominated, and it shows just how difficult it is to change these patterns.

“Our study thus highlights the power of established practices in sustaining inclusion and exclusion in top management,” write the authors.

Because the executive search field is built on notions of exclusivity and fit, the researchers argue, it naturally upholds the stereotypes that keep women out of the corner office.

Stereotypes and Fit
The study, “And then there are none: on the exclusion of women in processes of executive search,” appeared in Gender in Management: An International Journal last year. It was written by a team of European researchers: Janne Tienari, School of Business, Aalto University, Finland; Susan Merila¨inen, University of Lapland, Finland; Charlotte Holgersson, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden; and Regine Bendl, Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria.

The team based their studies on interviews with headhunters at executive search firms in Finland, Sweden, and Austria, with the goal of comparing search practices in the more gender-diverse and egalitarian Finland and Sweden with the more patriarchal and hierarchical Austria.

What they found was that while Finnish and Swedish teams were more open to including women on candidate slates than those in Austria, in the end, the result was the same. Few women would make it to top positions. Gender was an explicit factor up for discussion during the Austrian search practice; that is, a headhunter could ask a client point blank if they wanted a women candidate, and the client could say no.

In Sweden and Finland, the discussion around gender was more nuanced. For example, an executive search team will ask a client how they feel about having women candidates on the list, and common response will be that the gender of the candidate doesn’t matter.

But, as the authors explain, “The obligation to ask ‘whether it matters if the candidate is male or female’ does imply, again, that gender plays a role in search processes.”

In fact, the headhunters in the study believed that finding women candidates meant sacrificing important skills. The authors explain, “Both male and female headhunters in our study engage in this kind of talk where competences and skills of women are at times inadvertently belittled.”

Women also faced question about their family life that men did not. Married women were sometimes considered risky choices, in that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to give “everything” to their job. At the same time, married men were considered more likely to be stable or loyal.

Finally, headhunters and their clients always fell back on the notion of “fit.” The authors explain, “Vague criteria such as ‘leadership competence or social competence or something’ can be introduced to legitimize the subjective evaluation and final selection.”

Since most client teams were male dominated, it was just harder for headhunters to convince a client that a woman would “fit” on the team. That meant that headhunters wouldn’t put forth female candidates unless they were exceptionally well qualified for the job.

Perpetuating Structures
Of course, none of the stereotypes around leadership and gender that the researchers uncovered are new. We’ve heard over and over again that women have to work harder than men to get the same job, that women face questions about “work life balance” that men would never be subjected to in a job interview, that the men that make up the majority of management teams would prefer a colleague similar to themselves.

But this study shows how gender stereotypes influence the way headhunters do their jobs. The behavior that headhunters engage in to do their jobs perpetuates those same stereotypes, The cycle continues, and women remain locked out of management jobs. The authors explain:

“Categorical assumptions about men and women are reiterated, an ‘ideal’ candidate is defined as male, practices of executive search remain gendered, and the dominant position of a particular type of man in the top echelons of organizations is perpetuated. What top management is, how managers (should) look and how they (should) perform the job is routinely reproduced.”

The research suggests that the way that executive search firms operate – creating exclusive lists, profiling individuals, and focusing on fit – may serve to keep women out of top jobs, while further entrenching male dominated leadership structures.