How does a woman respond when she’s being recruited for a top job that may prove to be just too much of a stretch? And how is that different from how a man reacts in the same circumstances?
I recently asked Karena Strella, the US co-managing partner for Egon Zehnder International, the executive search firm, that very question. She told me:
“I’ve noticed that when you reach out to a woman for a potential job, she will immediately give you a list of other people’s names that might be worth considering. This doesn’t happen with men,” she says. “There’s a gender difference in how readily women see themselves in some of those top jobs.”
A similar thing happens when Strella asks executives about ideas for potential candidates in a given field.
“When we reach out to sources and ask: ‘Who would be the best person for this job?’, we get only names of men. When we ask the follow-up question: ‘Who is the best woman, or person of colour doing a job like this one?’, they will give you a list of other names, but with the caveat of ‘I don’t know if she’d want it’, or ‘I don’t know she’d move’. That mindset hasn’t yet shifted. When you ask someone to think of the best engineer, the best head of development, or the best GM they know, the image that comes to mind first is a man.”
And yet, says Strella, who works with Fortune 500 companies all over the world, her clients are more and more seeking candidates who have a traditionally “feminine” skillset, which includes attributes such as communication skills, social intelligence, empathy, consensus-building, and flexibility. Clients are giving more weight to candidates who possess these “soft” skills, which often leads them to consider more women for senior roles, she says.
“What clients are looking for are people who can manage in these uncertain times, who can work cross-culturally, and who can develop and retain the right talent as employees get stretched in their daily lives and companies are asking employees to do more with less. There is a recognition that these soft skills are increasingly important.”
Strella is optimistic that the number of women populating senior positions will rise considerably over the next decades.
“I’m ever hopeful because I see the enlightenment happening. When you talk to a male chief executive or a male senior executive who has a diverse management team, they will tell you how much richer an experience it is for them personally, and how much it meant to the business. Then they perpetuate it.”