Even in 2022, the representation of women in senior management positions and leadership roles remains low despite many diversity programs and no shortage of such candidates. So what continues to stand in the way of progress?
Recent data from the Australian Government Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) indicates women hold 28.1 per cent of directorships and represent 18.3 per cent of CEOs. In contrast, 30.2 per cent of boards and governing bodies have no female directors.
New research by Professors Lata Gangadharan and Erte Xiao from Monash University, with co-author Professor Nisvan Erkat from the University of Melbourne, may have an answer: qualified women candidates may not be raising their hand for a seat at the table.
Using a series of incentivised experiments with over 1,000 participants, they compared the traditional opt-in mechanism in recruitment (where candidates register their interest in a leadership role) with the opt-out mechanism (where all qualified candidates are considered for the position).
Interestingly, it was found that women are less likely to opt-in for leadership roles.
“When they do apply, they have a good chance of being successful, and sometimes the chance is higher than male candidates. But many women feel they are not ready, they would rather wait and be more confident that they will be promoted,” Professor Gangadharan said.
From family obligations to risk aversion and under-confidence, there are many reasons why they might not be willing to apply.
“Putting their hands up for participation in leadership selection may be especially difficult for women because they are often brought up not to be assertive,” Professor Xiao said.
“Women may also feel that by expressing their interest in leadership, they are going against the existing norm of male leadership. Additionally, making the decision to participate in the competition for the job may signal competitiveness or even aggressiveness.”
Most leadership selection in both the public and private sector relies on the opt-in mechanism, i.e., sending out ‘expressions of interest’ emails. For many women, actively signaling their interest with this mechanism can be an intimidating step.
Considering all qualified individuals by default could reduce the element of competition that holds these candidates back.
“Under this mechanism, the default is that unless they opt-in, individuals are not considered for the leadership selection process, which can lead to a lack of diversity within candidates,” added Professor Gangadharan.
In a 2019 Women in the Workplace study, it was found that for every 100 men promoted to management, only 58 Black women and only 68 Latina women were promoted. Could shifting the default in recruitment help organisations narrow this gap?
“In general, the opt-out mechanism may be a powerful nudge in changing the existing gender and racial stereotype norms,” said Professor Xiao.
“It would be beneficial to examine the default under the current system and consider mechanisms such as an opt-out mechanism when the current default norm is one of the barriers to cultural diversity.”
What more can businesses do?
An essential first step is the creation of diversity and inclusion benchmarks in the workplace. Can these benchmarks be implemented in recruitment processes, performance reviews, and promotions? What is the current diversity in the employee population? Do more aggressive recruitment goals need to be set? Some businesses may also benefit from enlisting a diversity and inclusion advocate within the organisation to ensure these goals are followed through.
While recruiting, businesses can improve the diversity within their hiring pool by partnering with diversity organisations and posting in diversity-oriented job groups. One of the biggest falsehoods is the supposed lack of diverse candidates in the job market.
Finally, screening tools like Applied can assist in screening job ads for language or requirements that cause candidates to hesitate or drop out.