Executive search pipeline not bent at the top

LBS expert finds women are self-steering away from top jobs


Executive search shortlists may not be the only reason for the paucity of women in top management jobs. The problem, which includes women self-steering away from top jobs, starts much earlier in the pipeline. That’s according to new research co-authored by a London Business School expert.

The research has been conducted by Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, Adecco Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, London Business School and Roberto Fernandez, William F. Pounds Professor in Management and a Professor of Organization Studies, MIT Sloan School of Management. It analyses the sources of women’s underrepresentation in hiring for top management jobs, focussing on the context of executive search.

Writing for Forbes, Dr Fernandez-Mateo says: “Senior management is still a man’s business, with women accounting for less than 17% of top executives and directors in Fortune 500 firms, and only 5% of CEOs, despite representing 40% of the workforce. Understanding why women are not reaching those positions is incredibly important.

“Executive search firms have traditionally faced criticism for keeping women out of the top jobs. But research I conducted with Roberto Fernandez, Professor of Organisation Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, paints a more complicated picture.” 

Dr Fernandez-Mateo and her co-author looked specifically at one executive search firm ‘Execo’ (a pseudonym) using proprietary data from 10,970 individuals considered by the company.

“We found that, once women make it to the interview with a search consultant, there is no disadvantage in subsequent interviews or in final placement. In fact, search firm-placed candidates are more likely to be female than candidates hired via other channels. At least in this setting, the pipeline is not being bent at the top,” says Dr Fernandez-Mateo.

“What we discovered is that when it comes to search firms hiring C-suite level women, inequality occurs much earlier in the hiring pipeline. Gender differences that exist play out at the start of the hiring process and they are driven by workers’, as well as employers’, behaviour.” 
According to the research, a crucial difficulty is the anticipation that employers may discriminate against women on the basis of implicit or explicit job-related, sex-based stereotypes, which may deter women from entering the race at all. 

“As a result, women may sometimes self-select themselves out of the running for top management jobs, even when their chances of getting them may not actually be different from those of men,” Dr Fernandez-Mateo explains. 

If we want to see more women in the C-Suite, Dr Fernandez-Mateo says we need to do two things.

“First, we need to understand what women’s choices might look like when they are not shaped by the expectation of how employers or search firms will behave during the screening process. Second, any interventions designed will need to focus at the start of the hiring pipeline, looking at the entire process, not just interview selection and end numbers.

“We have to address not only the interview selection process, but applicants’ own choices which also powerfully affect the pipeline.”