How to promote women?

In AFR Boss magazine last week, there was an article about the federal Australian public service (sorry, it’s not on the website), and how it seems to have reached critical mass in terms of senior women – so much so that they have their own word – femocrats.  One third of the eighteen most senior public servants are women, and one third of the senior executive service (2,025 people) are women.

And in today’s AFR, Corporate Woman has an article about affirmative action, suggesting that that’s what we need to get more senior women in the private sector (at a guess, I’d say a very broad equivalent set of percentages in the private sector would be around 5% and 15% for CEOs and senior managers respectively).  Catherine Fox describes ANZ’s rule for selecting people for roles: a woman must be on the shortlist, and a woman must be on the selection panel as affirmative action, and suggests we need more of it, despite most women’s deep discomfort with quotas.

My view is somewhat different. I recently heard someone from a successful private sector employer of women talk about improving representation in senior ranks, and they said that the single most effective thing that they had done is to require every single job to be advertised internally. By itself, with no other change, people were forced to consider all possible candidates for the role, rather than just the ones that they had heard of.

The AFR Boss article spends quite a lot of time talking about the recruitment process used in the public service, and the major difference from the private sector is the merit system for promotion. Each role is carefully specified, with criteria for appointment, and advertised and interviewed by a panel, in some cases with a single set of questions that address the appointment criteria. To someone in the private sector, that seems a nightmarishly beauracratic process. But formalising the process seems, on the evidence, to be the best way of genuinely getting the best candidates.

You will find many private sector men suggesting (at least in private) that the reason that women have made it to the top of the public sector is that all the good men are in the private sector. But at the bottom entry level, the proportions are roughly the same between public and private. And twenty years ago, they were the same at the top, too. The difference is that the public sector has made a serious effort to achieve merit rises.

Requiring an open and transparent and inclusive recruitment process seems relatively straightforward in theory. But I’ve rarely come across a private sector company that did it seriously across all of their roles. It’s not hard to do at the junior level. But it has to be done in the most important and senior roles for it to achieve the desired effect.

  1 comment for “How to promote women?

  1. October 20, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    Hi – Working in the HE sector in the UK in a ‘senior’ish role, I’d say that I do encounter more women at a peer level than in the private sector. And I’d confirm your view that a rigorous, best practice recruiting method has a lot to do with it. It also requires HR teams who are committed to the concept. An important part of it is recruiting by criteria at all stages of the process. Another important point is that personal details – age, ethnicity, gender etc – are unknown to the panel until *after* shortlisting. In our organisation we also recruit internally in the first instance unless it’s plainly inappropriate.

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