Could executive search firms hold the key to increasing diversity in our senior leaders?

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Could executive search firms hold the key to increasing diversity in our senior leaders?

In contrast to the corporate sector, we know there are serious shortcomings in the gender balance and representation of black and minority ethnic (BME) staff in university senior teams and higher education boards.

Executive search firms play a key role in senior recruitment, but there is little evidence about what works well in terms of how they present diverse shortlists, overcome unconscious bias and deliver on university diversity strategies.  

It is clear that more needs to be done within higher education senior roles to ensure greater representation of BME staff and gender.

Professor Simonetta Manfredi, Director for the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice

This is the context for the first independent study of the role and relationship of executive search firms in and with higher education.

Funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, the study was carried out by Professor Simonetta Manfredi who is Director for the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes University.

Professor Manfredi’s work examines the role of executive search firms in the selection and recruitment process for senior appointments in higher education institutions and in particular in relation to the need for increasing the representation of women and black and minority ethnic groups.

The study reveals they play an important, but perhaps opaque, role and raises questions about the boundaries of accountability for equality and diversity outcomes and the extent to which universities, as the client, challenge the process. 

Professor Manfredi commented: “It is clear that more needs to be done within higher education senior roles to ensure greater representation of BME staff and gender. The study I have conducted examines the role that executive search firms play in this key area and affords greater understanding which I hope will lead to improved diversity.”

Professor Fiona Ross, director of research, Leadership Foundation said: “Diversity in senior leadership teams is linked to better organisational performance. Tackling homogenous cultures of leadership is increasingly seen as a challenge in higher education. We welcome the findings from this research as executive search firms play a large role in senior appointments, but little is known about their contribution to building diversity for organisations.”

The report will be launched at an evening event taking place on Monday 20 March 2017 at University of Liverpool in London. The event will be chaired by Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor University of Liverpool and chair of the Equality Challenge Unit.

Professor Beer, who was previously Vice-Chancellor at Oxford Brookes, will lead the panel discussion on the key findings with Margaret Ayers, Director of Human Resources, Queen Mary’s, University of London alongside a chair of governors and a director of an executive search firm. It was recently announced that Stephen Frost, the former head of diversity and inclusion for the London 2012 Olympic and KMPG will be joining the panel for the launch too.

Further information can be found on the Leadership Foundation’s website.