No Binders Full of Women for These Recruiters

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When Republican candidate Mitt Romney used the phrase "binders full of women" in this week's presidential debate, it set the "Twitter-sphere" a fire with Democrats claiming it revealed Romney's true attitudes toward women.

What was lost in the democrat's response however was the context in which Romney used the phrase. He was talking about his attempts to include more women in his cabinet when he was governor of Massachusetts and that women's groups had brought him "binders full of women" to consider.

Now comes a new study from the U.K. that blames recruiters for keeping women out of top jobs and putting their favorite candidates on short lists while only putting women forward for low paying roles.

The study from Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, an associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School, was published in the journal Management Science. It found that recruiters are less likely to put women forward for highly paid positions. This is the case even though employers want to interview women. It also found that recruiters tend to put the same candidates forward over and over again.

Fernandez-Mateo’s study wasn’t specific to financial services. She scrutinized 23,355 candidates at a temporary IT recruitment company. They were considered for 6,705 temporary projects in 2,331 client firms over a nine-year period. In other words the study was quite exhaustive.

Fernandez-Mateo argues that the temporary nature of the placements she studied acts as control against women’s self-selection bias: aware that they might need to leave the workplace to raise children, women tend to choose roles which are general rather than specific to that organization. These general roles tend to be lower paying. If the role is only temporary anyway, this isn’t an issue.

After her nine year study, Fernandez-Mateo’s key takeaway is that:

‘Women are more likely to be shortlisted for lower-paid projects and less likely to be shortlisted for higher-paid projects when the staffing firm drives the decision, whereas clients are more likely to interview women for almost all projects with the exception of some at the top of the pay distribution.’   

Why do recruiters do this? She postulates that they’re just playing it safe:

“In any labor market, some positions are more difficult to fill and the consequences of a screening failure more severe. To minimize these consequences and avoid disappointing the client, the intermediary may tend toward the “safest” option, which is usually the least atypical (i.e., men in this case).”

Fernandez-Mateo doesn’t say so, but the implication is that the more challenged recruiters feel, the safer they’ll play it – and the less likely that atypical candidates of any form will even get before the client.

Implications for financial services

This clearly has implications for financial services, where conditions are not easy at all for recruiters right now.

However, the financial services recruiters we spoke to insisted that they’re very proactive about putting women forward for well paid roles and that banks positively approve of this.

“If anything, clients encourage us to place an emphasis on women when we’re assembling a short list,” says David Howell, managing director at search firm EM Group.

“Banks will often ask us how many women there are on the shortlist,” agrees Adrian Ezra, chief executive of search firm ExecZen. “It can be hard – trading roles are often very male dominated and if we could find more women traders it would probably be welcomed,” he adds.

No 40 year olds, no women of childbearing age?

In the early 2000s Barclays Capital famously offered recruiters more money for putting female candidates on short lists. Banks’ recruiters say this proved unworkable in practice, however.

Off the record, recruiters tell us it’s still quite common for banks to ask for restrictions on the ages and experience levels of shortlisted candidates – they don’t want people who are too old. In the distant past, headhunters also complained that they were being asked to eliminate ‘breeders’ - defined as women of child bearing age who might take maternity leave, from shortlists.

Befriend your recruiter, keep him/her close

Fernandez-Mateo observed that her recruiters had a tendency to put keep putting the same shortlisted candidates forward. This may be less of an issue outside the temping market, but recruiter partiality is worth bearing in mind if you want to have any chance of getting anywhere near an interview.

Howell insists the best headhunters are totally objective, however. “Every search will involve a different shortlist. We’re not doing our job properly if we’re just recycling the same people,” he insists.

So if you're a highly paid, high-powered woman who’s struggling to get an interview for a lucrative role, or someone of either sex who doesn’t know recruiters very well and is struggling to get interviews despite being highly suited for all the jobs you’re applying to, you may want to blame the recruiters. They may be holding you back.

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