Professor Simonetta Manfredi, Associate Dean for Research and Knowledge Exchange, Oxford Brookes University shares the findings from her research into the crucial role Executive Search Firms play in recruiting senior leaders in Higher Education.
Women and black minority ethnic (BME) continue to be significantly under-represented in senior roles across the Higher Education sector. There has been some improvement for women’s representation at the level of Deputy/Pro Vice-Chancellor (35%) and chief operating officer/registrar/university secretary (35.5%), but at Vice-Chancellor and Principal level their representation remains low (20%). While representation of BME staff among academic managers, directors and senior officials is significantly much lower (2.9%) as highlighted by Equality Challenge Unit Staff Diversity statistics (2016).
It is common practice for Higher Education Institutions to use the services of Executive Search Firms (ESF) when seeking to fulfil vacancies for senior roles. However, little is known about the interaction of these companies with their HE clients and to what extent ESF can help them to achieve greater diversity in these roles. An exploratory study commissioned by Leadership Foundation for Higher Education has tried to address this gap and some of the key findings from this research are reported below.
Increasing gender is prioritised over BME
Higher Education Institutions appear to be more focused on increasing gender diversity rather than ethnic diversity in senior roles. Several institutions are likely to ask ESF about their record in securing more diverse appointments but overall, as highlighted by some search consultants who work with the wider public sector, HEIs appear to take “a narrow view of what diversity is”.
In order to search for candidates, ESF would typically rely on their own networks, desk-based research and sourcing to compile a long list of potentially suitable candidates. The process from longlist to shortlist is fairly standardised. From the long list, usually around 10-15 candidates are identified to be interviewed by search consultants. This appears to be a stage in the selection process where ESFs have a significant degree of discretion as they assess candidates upon which recommendations are made to their clients in order to compile the final short-list. There are variations in how structured the ESF interview process is with regard to the level of prior information provided to candidates and whether they would be interviewed by one or two consultants. Consultants stressed the value of these interviews in ensuring that talented individuals are not overlooked especially if there is “a disconnect between a good candidate and the quality of the application that has been put forward” or to explain career gaps and less conventional careers. However, if on the one hand these ESFs led interim interviews, it could be beneficial to prospective candidates, on the other hand, they could introduce an element of subjectivity or implicit bias. This could be especially the case if conducted by only one search consultant and if used to explore ‘practical factors’ such as the candidate’s ability to relocate. This presents the potential risk of leading to questions relating to family commitments or other aspects of a candidate’s personal circumstances that would not be deemed appropriate in the context of a formal interview undertaken by a HEI.
Bias toward candidates who are considered a better ‘cultural fit’
However, the risk of bias influencing the appointment process, especially in the way “merit” is constructed and candidates are judged is not only confined to ESF interim interviews. Vague notions like “cultural fit” and “chemistry” are still being used to refer to the suitability of candidates. A few consultants, for example, questioned whether “cultural fit” sometimes is meant literally rather than as organisational fit and noted that in their experience there is more likely to be biased against BME candidates than women. Thus, there might be gendered and racialized expectations that come with certain senior academic roles, which means that white men are often chosen because they interview confidently and are seen as a “safe bet”.
The responsibility to achieve better equality outcomes rests with HEIs who need to ensure that they comply with their obligations under the Public Sector Equality Duty to eliminate discrimination and promote equality of opportunities. However, the findings from this research suggest that some institutions retain better oversight than others over the work of ESFs and their compliance with equality considerations throughout the process. When HEIs chose to outsource part of the recruitment and selection process to ESFs they must be clear that it is their responsibility to make sure that equality considerations are taken into account throughout the whole of the process, including in those stages that are managed by search firms. It is for HEIs to set the parameters, including setting targets to achieve more balanced candidates lists. As one Chair of a university council, who took part in this study, clearly put it, “knowing what you want out of them is important”. This clearly needs to be underpinned by a strong institutional commitment to achieve greater diversity at senior level.
Therefore, this study points to the need for the HE sector to develop an accountability framework for diversity to ensure that equality considerations are taken into account throughout the process. It concludes with a suggested framework for action which provides for check and balances to ensure that equality considerations are built throughout the appointment process. It also suggests that ESF could play an important part in helping the sector to nurture the pipeline of potential candidates for senior roles from under-represented groups. For example, there is scope for search consultants to work closely with their HE clients within the context of the Athena Swan scheme and the Race Equality Charter Mark to provide guidance on how to make effective applications for senior roles.
Increasing the Diversity of Senior Leaders in Higher Education: The Role of Executive Search Firms was funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.
To download a copy of this research, please visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/Manfredi5.7
About Professor Simonetta Manfredi
To find out more about Professor Manfredi, please visit Oxford Brookes Website: http://business.brookes.ac.uk/about/staff/profile.asp?id=p0070723
About the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education
The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education is a membership organisation that is committed to developing and improving the management, governance and leadership skills of existing and future leaders of higher education. To find out more, please visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk