A bar-room brawl on gender diversity

Gender would be irrelevant when hiring if we lived in a perfect system where unconscious and conscious bias didn’t exist. But we don’t, Jonathan Harvey writes. So what can be done?

"Do you believe that every man is appointed on his merits?"
Jonathan Harvey, Group general manager, executive development at ANZ.

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I was at a Christmas drinks recently with the parents of my son’s classmates from school. It would be fair to say that I’d already enjoyed a couple of glasses of lovely Mornington Peninsula Pinot when I got talking to one of the fathers I hadn’t met before.

As is the case with boring corporate types like me (and my new acquaintance it turns out), we began with the predictable “what do you do”? Turns out he works in finance for a big Australian. “Excellent” I think to myself, “plenty to talk about, probably know a bunch of people in common, easy conversation”, which at 10pm after a long day at work and two glasses of wine was exactly what I was looking for. 

I first realised our conversation wasn’t going to be ‘easy’ when, after telling him what I did (managing senior executive talent and succession at ANZ) he asked me whether I thought our succession processes genuinely resulted in the right people being appointed to roles. 

“We’re by no means perfect”, I conceded “but I believe we have improved a lot over the past few years”. I told him I was particularly proud that in the past two years a majority of our executives promoted into senior executive roles (11 out of 12 actually), have been women. “Why are you proud of this” was his somewhat hostile and challenging response. 

Whoa… hold on here a second… what was that? Did he just ask me to justify why it is a good thing to have promoted a bunch of senior women into even more senior roles? That was a shock. He was meant to have said something like “well done” and then we could have moved onto some other comfortable topic of conversation. Instead I was being held to account. 

I’m more a fight than flight kind of guy (unless the other person is really big). So I shaped up to defend my contention that promoting a disproportionate number of women to senior roles is a good thing and something for a company to be proud of. What followed was a respectful but robust and at times passionate (on both sides) conversation that lasted for a good 30 minutes, until we both realised we were the last parents standing at the bar. 

His argument, which I hear a lot, was it should always be about promoting the best person for the job. Gender should be irrelevant. My response is that’s fine if we lived in a perfect system where unconscious and at times conscious bias didn’t exist. But we don’t. The majority of decision makers when it comes to promotions at a senior level are men and we know from a myriad of research that human beings have a tendency to hire in their own image. 

We actually did a bit of desk top research at ANZ, looking at the hiring practices of senior men and women over a two year period. I should say it was a while ago and would not stand up to any serious research methodology scrutiny but the results were interesting nonetheless. The men (representing 80 per cent of the population) made 80 per cent male appointments. The women (representing 20 per cent of the population) made 50 per cent male appointments. Does this mean women are less likely to hire in their own image than men? Inconclusive but my instinct says this is generally probably the case. 

Anyway, back to my Christmas drinks conversation. Onto my third (and last) glass of pinot, I’m in full-flight arguing the concept of the “best person for the job” is fallacious because the whole notion of “best” is subjective and open to the aforementioned biases. Tokenism is raised and my sparring partner counters many of the women he speaks to don’t want to be seen as token female appointments, they want to “get the job on their merits”. 

I agree. I also hear this from women in my own organisation and always respond with the question: “do you believe that every man is appointed on his merits?”. This generally stops them in their tracks as they reflect and realise that often merit didn’t enter into the equation. That another M word… mateship… is often more significant.

I remember sitting on a panel a few years ago with a very senior female executive at ANZ in front of a bunch of graduates who were firing questions at us about our careers. A young woman at the back of the room raised her hand and asked my female colleague: “Aren’t you worried with all this talk about gender targets that you might become a token appointment, I want to progress my career on my merits not as a result of someone meeting a target”. I will always remember my colleague’s response and I hope the young woman at the back of the room does too: “My dear, I have been a token appointment on a number of occasions in my career but I don’t remain a token for very long”! 

I felt I was winning the argument with my new friend until he punched below the belt. “Well I hear what you say but a big part of the problem with all this is HR”. Ouch, did he really need to get personal? 

The problem was what he went on to say had some resonance. He told me notwithstanding his dislike of targets, he had in fact disproportionately appointed women into his team over the past few years (on their merits) to the point where his team was now 70 per cent female. 

Recently he was told by HR his company had committed to a 1 per cent increase in Women in Management over the next 12 months and this applied to him as it does to every department across the organisation. Unless he further increased his ratio of women in his team he would be negatively impacted in his performance review. His response to HR was to say he will manage his ratio between 60 to 80 per cent but refuses to commit to an arbitrary increase on 70 per cent just to meet a corporate target. 

This did seem like bureaucracy gone mad. Moreover, I said I felt confident this sort of heavy handed, one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t happen in my own organisation. I also said in defence of my profession that at times, in a genuine attempt to shift the system, HR can lose sight of the woods for the trees but the challenge we face is that whilst gender diversity is well and truly on the boardroom and executive leadership team’s agenda, once you dig a couple of levels down then the majority of executives and managers (predominantly men), don’t passionately care about the issue and indeed have a vested interest not to. 

My friend’s final question to me, linked with the above point was: “aren’t you worried over the next few years you will lose a lot of good men because they won’t feel there is a career path for them?”. I paused and reflected as to be honest I had never really considered this angle before. 

My considered view, and I say this from the point of view of a man in a profession increasingly dominated by women, is that if this is to be the case then it is acceptable collateral damage along the way to ensuring women are more equally represented in all fields of endeavour. In reality what it will mean is that men will have to compete harder for opportunities that previously they had a mortgage on. And this is no bad thing. 

Jonathan Harvey is group general manager, executive development at ANZ.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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