Are you still struggling to find diverse candidates? Here’s why…

6 min

Picture the scene. An executive search firm is taking a brief on a position at a Fortune 100 with the CHRO and the hiring executive.

After a detailed briefing session, discussing technical and behavioural competency requirements, including a need for candidates to have graduated from an Ivy League or similar top-ranking school and hold an MBA, the CHRO adds “oh, and diversity is really important for us here, so we’d like a diverse shortlist.”

“Great, what does diversity mean to you?” asks the search consultant.

“Well, we’re keen to make sure our shortlists include female, black, Asian and minority ethnic candidates as much as possible.”

Unfortunately, this is often where the diversity discussion ends, and the majority of the time will result in a shortlist with a lack of diversity and the CHRO and hiring executive left scratching their heads as to why they can’t meet their diversity goals.

Race and ethnicity are significant elements at play in diversity and understandably are the main elements we focus on. However, would a Black, Asian or other minority ethnic candidate who graduated from an Ivy League or similar top-ranking school, with an almost identical education and career as the rest of your existing team, truly bring diversity?

What our imaginary (yet unfortunately typical) briefing should have included is a detailed conversation about what diversity truly means in this context from the start of the meeting, including a challenge to the key requirements that would enable a genuinely diverse shortlist.

Even with all the focus around diversity, including gender, race, ethnicity and neurodiversity, far too often diversity falls short. Far too often, companies are applying a diversity lens to an inherently anti-diverse list of requirements.

Take two examples of hypothetical candidates.

Candidate A started education late, having paid for their own education from savings and attended a middle-ranking university. They overcame career barriers by moving company a few times to advance their career. They eventually worked their way up into a corporate role in a Fortune 500.

Candidate B achieved a scholarship into a top-ranking university and started their career, completing an MBA after a few years as part of their company’s high-potential program. They have worked for two large Fortune 100s in their career, based in the USA and have risen through the ranks.

Regardless of gender or race, if your leadership team consists of individuals with a profile like Candidate B, then Candidate A could be the most diverse hire you can make. In many ways, companies with a bias towards the profile of Candidate B are setting up a leadership team that are used to opportunities coming easily to them because of their background. Can leadership groups afford to miss out on the skills that the Candidate A’s of the world have developed through having to hone their influencing skills, building resilience and grit to get where they are today?

So why do so many companies keep looking for Candidate B who is Black, female, neurodiverse, LGBT+ or from some other underrepresented group?

To get diversity right in a way that meaningfully provides businesses with genuinely diverse teams, companies need to open their hiring criteria to other universities and look at other career trajectories. Diversity should never be ‘similar but different’ but all too often it still is.

For example in the US, from a study of the level of diversity in the top-ranked 100 universities by a U.S News and World Report, three of the Ivy League universities featured in the top 20 (placing fourth, seventeenth and nineteenth). Only Columbia featured in the top five.

While these establishments have made great strides in recent years which will undoubtedly broaden the talent pool over the next few decades, this doesn’t impact leadership hiring today. For this, we must look at statistics from graduates who have gained sufficient work experience to be candidates for leadership roles today and in the next few years. An analysis of the data of graduates of 2005 from Harvard, Princeton and Yale as examples shows how slim the talent pool is for current leaders and future executives graduating from the Ivy League from underrepresented groups. These individuals, 15 years into their career, will be likely candidates to be progressing into leadership positions today and in the next few years.

According to the data obtained from the National Center for Education Statistics, Black graduates attaining their first major in 2005 accounted for 6.5% of graduates from Princeton, 6.2% from Yale and 5.8% from Harvard. Similarly, Hispanic graduates accounted for 5.4% of graduates from Harvard, 5% from Princeton and 4.7% from Yale that year. Of the 12,597 graduates from Harvard, Princeton and Yale combined in 2005, 1,364 were either Black or Hispanic, accounting for just over 10% of the total cohort. In comparison, there were 1,693 Black and Hispanic graduates that year from the University of Houston alone, accounting for 25% of the total graduates that year.

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