Oh noes, it's women CEOs!

Feb 28 2011 Published by under women

In case you missed it amidst all the other news last week (Wisconsin protests, New Zealand earthquake, The Last Airbender winning worst movie of the year), there's a debate raging across the pond as to whether there ought to be quotas for hiring more female CEOs to lead companies. I've been watching this debate unfold, because the comments people leave on these articles provides some insight into the thinking of some very polarized people. Furthermore, they reveal some seriously flawed assumptions.

Let's take Mike for example:

People should not be chosen for a job on the basis of gender, race or religion. In every case a job should go to the person best able to carry out that job. --Mike Rose, UK

You know, Mike, I agree with you 100%. I think that is a great statement. Except, please do something for me. Explain to me how a hiring manager identifies who the "best person able to carry out that job" is. Is it based on an objective, quantifiable measure? Say, number of publications, number of profits earned, number of customers acquired? Is it based on a gender-blind objective assessment of a candidate's writing skills, technical skills, or thinking skills?

Oh, it's usually not? Huh. Then how can best be determined? Awfully fuzzy, I'd say.

Here's the thing: in corporate America (and in your case, corporate Britain), there is systemic bias and discrimination against non-majority people. I say non-majority because this bias is something that goes beyond race, ethnicity, and gender discrimination. It also includes socio-economic status, parental status, marital status, sexual orientation, and cultural background.

You see, many of the people being discriminated against don't "fit" the mold very well. So in addition to never even getting called in for an interview because their name is "Jamal Brown" instead of "John Smith", if they are interviewed they don't make the final cut because they didn't fit the majority image the hiring manager had in their brain.

So in nearly every case, we're finding the majority person getting the top jobs because the non-majority person didn't fit this non-objective image of "the best person able to carry out that job".

Someone asked the head of Associated British Foods about its CEO hiring decisions. It 'says it has a duty to appoint the best candidate, "and to date that person has been male"'. (The Times, 25 Feb 2011).

Riiiight. Ok, Mike, let's look at the logic here:

  • Companies always hire the "best candidate".
  • The majority of Fortune 500/FTSE 100 companies are run by wealthy white men.
  • Therefore, the best people to lead Fortune 500/FTSE 100 companies are wealthy white men.

Ok, I'm done picking on Mike. Fortune 500/FTSE 100 companies, this message is for you:

     If you are truly committed to diversity, PROVE IT.

Stop padding your website and brochures with pictures showing how diverse you are and actually bring in some diverse leaders. Take a chance on a non-majority person for once. I promise, we don't bite. Usually.

12 responses so far

  • Grant says:

    Slightly off-topic, but the new Vice Chancellor of the local university (NZ's oldest) is a woman.

  • keithb says:

    And then there is Carly Fiorina...

    • fcs says:

      Not sure how that's relevant to the discussion. Please do not make the fallacy of taking Carly Fiorina as representative of all female CEOs.

      • keithb says:

        I absolutely agree, but we rarely hear stories about the *competent* go-about-their-business women ceo's, just the notorious ones.

        I am sure some selection bias creeps in.

        We probably need 10 competent woman ceo's to counteract the negative publicity of each bad apple.

      • GMP says:

        It looks like keithb is employing the good old "any woman represents all women" as aptly captured by this xkcd comic


      • dvision says:

        You're making the flawed assumption that there /is/ a representative female CEO. In fact you're making tons of flawed assumptions that you project onto others, such as the assumption that gender implies identity.

  • This.

    I seem to remember something about orchestra hirings... Oh look, it's the internet and I can find it. "Using data from audition records, the researchers found that blind auditions increased the probability that a woman would advance from preliminary rounds by 50 percent."


    Too bad they can't blind-hire CEOs.

  • brooksPhD says:

    Excellent post.

    What are some suggestions for how they can overcome their institutionalized bias? Blind-review, pre-interview doesn't overcome the F2F bias.

    increased diversity of hiring committees? can only work if the right people are there to make up the committee.

    Mandated quotas...and here we hit the snag you describe above.

    • fcs says:


      To start I think resumes should definitely be blind-screened - no names or gender identifying information. Also, require the reference letters to be gender-blind.

      For interviews, standardized interview questions. Also, standardized criteria determined in advance of the interview for what sort of candidate they're looking for.

      When trying to decide who to hire given n candidates, if one is picked over the others state very explicit reasons why they believe that candidate is better.

      Diverse hiring committees would definitely help too.

  • marcus says:

    Shout out to Ursula Burns.

  • Isabel says:

    Good post but I think your term should be non-minority. A majority of people are not male, upper class, white, etc.

  • Ian says:

    Do you even know how businesses go about hiring their most senior staff? Reading this article I think not.

    To read what you have written here, you would think that people just send their CVs on spec to the hiring department saying, please let me be CEO. It just doesn't work like this.

    Most companies retain very expensive and exclusive head hunting agencies (Heidrich and Struggles for instance) to approach and identify suitable candidates many months in advance of hiring to ensure that a suitable candidate can move smoothly into the role. Also, senior directors and CEOs will frequently discuss potential opporunities and vacancies within their very extensive business networks.

    At CEO level it is all about the individual - not just their paper resumes, so the idea of blind box ticking is just dumb. It might work for very standardised jobs, or new entry roles, but regardless of qualification and experience, the final choice will come down to an individual.

    I know this because I have many friends within the recruitment business, and worked with CEOs from top international companies for several years in London. How are you qualified to give any opinion on this - please tell me. Because otherwise it just sounds like ignorant self-righteous liberal bigotry to me.

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