50/50 Shortlists - An affirmative step in the right direction or a positively intended misfire?

by Joshua Guest

Whilst a number of reports and articles discussing the issue of gender equality in the workplace have been published during the last twelve months, one recent article that caught my attention more than most was one stating that multinational professional services firm PriceWaterhouseCooper (PWC) have banned ‘male only shortlists’ and is working towards ‘50/50 shortlists’ during all direct future recruitment campaigns.

Maybe it has me thinking because it’s spoken in a language I understand and am able to relate to.

In my experience, shortlists aren’t easy to bring together. Their assembly takes a lot of effort and should - with no exceptions - provide a selection of the most highly-qualified candidates for the role at hand. It can take hundreds of conversations and tens of interviews to reach a successful shortlist but regardless of the effort that goes into this endeavour, the candidates in question should be there for objective, business-specific reasons and should have been processed fairly – regardless of opinion or bias. To place uncontrollable confines on something such as this is interesting and for me raises more questions than answers. The first of which is why is this even necessary?

Call me naïve, sheltered, foolish or any other adjective that springs to mind, but my experiences in industry (and indeed in life) thus far concerning how women are viewed and subsequently how they are treated has led to my disbelief that in 2018 there is even such an issue as a shortage of female senior leaders in industry or a gender pay gap. Yet despite my thoughts and opinions, it is clear that these issues exist and are far-reaching.

Affirmatively addressing this ugly point can only be a good thing and PWC should be commended for their attitude in tackling the issue head-on (from what I can see they – and other companies – are implementing a number of company-specific projects to close the gap) however I can’t help but think (as someone who makes a living from shortlists) that the 50/50 initiative is focusing on the wrong part of the problem.

In some cases, a company’s talent pool for a given position will be very small and will require incredibly rare skill and experience that may only be possessed by a finite amount of people. If all of the candidates in question are male (or female – both situations have arisen in projects I’ve managed) and the shortlist is then rejected or the process is prolonged as a result, I would argue PWC are running the risk of missing out on the most (objectively quantifiable) talented person for the position in question.

Whilst I will reiterate again my commendation for PWC’s affirmative stance on this issue, I would argue that in this case, they may cause more problems than they solve.

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