How to ensure inclusive hiring beyond senior management

Male-dominated industries like law firms increasingly face pressure to appoint more women to very senior roles, and many firms are doing just that. But does the hiring of women in senior management posts translate to diversity throughout the organisation? And if not, is there a way to ensure that women are recruited at all levels in hopes of greater inclusion and diversity from top to bottom?

man and woman having a meeting

Research co-authored by Lionel Paolella, Associate Professor in Strategy & Organisation at Cambridge Judge Business School, has some sobering conclusions – but also some rays of hope.

The research by Lionel finds that law firms that increase the number of women in the most senior positions inadvertently neglect the recruitment of women at lower levels – perhaps because the firm decides it has done enough rather than devote more resources to signal diversity to stakeholders.

“There are unintended consequences of a narrow focus on increasing gender diversity at the top, often in response to external pressure from clients and others concerned about public opinion,” says Lionel. “We find that this is most likely if diversity at the top is disconnected to what we believe should be a holistic approach to diversity throughout an organisation.” Lionel Paolella, Associate Professor in Strategy & Organisation

Unintended consequences of diversity practices in male-oriented industries

An earlier version of the research focused on how law firms use ’organisational licensing’ through the hiring of some senior women to avoid hiring more women throughout the firm, which creates an illusion of fairness through a good deed. The focus has since evolved into a greater emphasis on how these consequences can be addressed through women’s representation on key committees.

While the research focuses on law firms, the authors say that the lessons extend to other male-oriented industries such as finance and accounting: how a firm’s relative success (compared to industry peers) in a highly visible diversity metric such as women senior managers, can unintentionally reduce the organisation’s attention to diversity issues at lower levels – with ’organisational attention’ defined in prior research as “the distinct focus of time and effort by the firm on a particular set of issues, problems, opportunities, and threats, and on a particular set of skills, routines, programmes, projects, and procedures”.

Looked at in another way: the inadvertent lack of job offers to women at lower levels is driven by reduced attention paid to internal diversity practices, which is in turn driven by complacency caused by a firm deciding that hiring a few women for top jobs shows satisfactory progress toward diversity.

“As such, they may allocate fewer resources and less time and effort to internal diversity practices,” says the research by Lionel and colleagues. “Firms allocating fewer resources and less time to diversity practices signal to their predominantly male managers that additional efforts to diversify the workforce are unnecessary.”

The research’s proposed substantive involvement of women on diversity and hiring committees is described as a ‘moderated mediation model’ that highlights an underlying mechanism – a firm’s engagement with its internal diversity practices – which the authors say is a “critical boundary condition” for the inadvertent consequences of hiring a few women for top roles.

Lionel’s research makes 3 key contributions to the academic literature in this area:

  • the ‘attention-based’ view of firms through a practice lens of organisational attention
  • the research on unintended consequences of diversity practices
  • the limited body of literature on processes that disrupt gender inequality, through the research’s proposed “practical solution to the unintended adverse effect of changing demographics at the top”.

The authors say their findings have implications for other types of inequality such as lack of racial diversity, and suggest that further research could look at whether appointing to top posts some members of underrepresented communities also translates into a lack of organisation-wide diversity.

Read the full article below. 

Image: Kerkez, Getty Images via Canva 


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