Mr President’s Laura Jordan Bambach
Laura Jordan Bambach: research on diversity found teams most likely to generate ideas were led by 'peer enablers'

Mara Swan is a self-identified fast talker. She races through words, gets to the point and dislikes it when others do not follow suit. “If someone comes into an interview and talks slow, I can’t stand them,” confesses Ms Swan, executive vice-president for global strategy at ManpowerGroup. “I tell myself that it has nothing to do with [their] intellect, but it drives me crazy.”

Ms Swan’s prejudice against slow talkers has informed her approach to eliminating gender bias in her company, where she advocates relying more on assessments than interviews when recruiting. “We need to rely on the data to assess people — it is more reliable than interviewing by far,” she says. “We need to distrust our instincts . . . we are still making decisions based on who we like, we still believe in our instinct to pick good people.”

One report by Australian academics found that while “merit” is lauded in recruitment, it is a subjective concept. A common answer from middle managers when interviewed by researchers was “we want the best person for the job”, says Sue Williamson, one of the authors and a researcher at the University of New South Wales. “But when we asked them, ‘How do you know who that person is?’, it became clear that they had a very shallow understanding of merit.”

This is because what constitutes being meritorious changes over time and with social values, she says. Given that society has traditionally disadvantaged women, it is not so surprising our traditional concept of merit does the same.

“It seems to me that merit is this ‘ideal worker’, who can work long hours and [is] willing to work in the office, rather than working from home,” says Ms Williamson. “It is also around who is the most visible in the workplace. Managers are so busy all the time that they keep giving the same people the high-profile projects rather than looking [around].”

Presenteeism was a workplace culture that Laura Jordan Bambach wanted to move away from at London-based creative agency Mr President, where she is chief creative officer. “You have to commit and do the work and your work needs to show that,” she says. “But there is no clock watching, there are many people at senior level who work some weeks from home . . . all sorts of people have all sorts of reasons to. The company will not look down on you or see you as not being as serious about your job if you request flexible working.”

Attitudes towards the work ethic in the creative industry tend to work against women, says Ms Jordan Bambach. “If you happen to have more classical ‘female’ traits, such as being courteous and more of a ‘shepherd’ rather than a top-down leader — you’re not seen as being leadership material in the creative world.”

However, as part of her research for The Great British Diversity Experiment, an initiative for the communications industry in 2015-16, she found the op­posite was true: teams with a top-down approach were less likely to generate ideas than teams led by “peer enablers”.

Biases are ingrained, and often un­cons­cious, but re-educating can be counterproductive if done badly. “If organisations do an unconscious bias training and that is all they do, that has more negative consequences than positive ones,” says Ms Williamson. “People think ‘I’m not biased, I’ve done training, I know what’s going on’ and then without thinking further fall back on their implicit biases.

“There is also the paradox of meritocracy, where organisations who think they apply the merit principle — because they think all their processes and the way they behave is meritorious — don’t question their beliefs.”

Clare Gordon, a partner at Bain & Co, the management consultancy, agrees. “Training alone doesn’t work, especially one-off training,” she says. “We need to think of the systems and processes that will get rid of this bias rather than focusing on the individual.”

Bain tries to avoid practices that tend to favour men, such as self-reporting for promotion, and it has tried to remove subjective aspects in recruitment by putting forward clear assessment criteria and making sure they have a diverse group of candidates.

Gender targets are sometimes seen as incompatible with hiring on merit. However, targets can help companies find meritorious women. When very few women applied for an advertised position at one of ManpowerGroup’s clients, a tech company in India, it tweaked aspects of the job description.

“If you ask women to name five things that they’re good at they might not apply,” says Ms Swan. “So we focus by talking about the kinds of things you are ‘interested in’ and we have a lot more women apply as a result of that.” While the client company does not have hiring quotas, it aims to have a 50/50 gender balance in the pool of applicants.

Cheryl Khor, a risk analyst at consultancy Deloitte in Kuala Lumpur, points to the challenge of gender balance among job applicants in Malaysia. Public limited companies in the country may have been set a target of 30 per cent female representation on corporate boards by 2020, she says, but Malaysian organisations are still biased because “they assume that everybody has the same circumstance”. Women in Malaysia are “ex­pec­ted to be mothers, to care for the elderly parents”, says Ms Khor, a gender equality advocate. “From a promotion standpoint, if there is a higher fallout rate for women, then the pool of talent is more concentrated on men.”

The answer is a case-by-case approach, she says, citing Deloitte’s mentorship programme, including Leading with Impact, launched two years ago to “make sure [women] stay connected, they don’t fall out and that we can work out the structure in a way that can retain them”.

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