How to recruit & retain women

Cat Wildman & Nicole Ponsford 2019

The question of how to recruit and retain women has never been more relevant. In 2018 over 10,000 of the UK’s largest companies published their first gender pay gap report. One result, amongst many, is that many employers upped their efforts to recruit and retain more women, especially at senior levels and thus reduce their gender pay gap.

We have brought the best advice and case studies together into a list of actions you can take to recruit and retain more women. You’ll find links to the most relevant articles, research and to some of the tools you’ll need to help you take action.


1. Assess & address your biases

As human beings, we are all biased to some extent. Mental shortcuts and assumptions help us to make sense of our world. It’s when these biases are applied to people that we run into problems like racism, sexism and discrimination. In her book on What works: Gender Equality By Design Iris Bohnet recommends assessing your biases and taking these 5 simple steps to make sure they don’t influence your recruitment decisions.

The Financial Services industry is suffering from a severe lack of women and there has been a huge focus on recruiting more. Their learnings, set out in the 2017 PWC inclusive recruitment survey said whilst others are struggling, the thing that marks out the front-runners from the rest is their recognition of the biases and barriers that impede inclusion, and their readiness to actively target and tackle them.

2. De-gender your job advertisements

Job advertisements are not allowed to advertise specifically for men or women or use pronouns such as he or she. However, gender preferences can still be conveyed with more subtle cues such as traits and stereotypes typically associated with certain genders. For example, words such as competitive, dominant or leader are associated with male stereotypes, while words such as support, understand and interpersonal are associated with female stereotypes. Including gendered words in job advertisements could make the position seem less appealing to a certain gender, thereby limiting the applicant pool for these jobs. Run your job adverts and job descriptions through a decoder like this one to equalise your ads.


3. Insist on diverse Interview Panels

Walk your talk - if you want to hire a more diverse staff, make sure your commitment to diversity is represented during your interview process. Forbes summarise it brilliantly in this article when they say Women are much more likely to join a company when they can interact with women who are already there, and can testify to a company’s commitment to diversity. In fact, experts say, one of the biggest deciding factors on whether or not a female candidate accepts a job is if there was a woman on the interview panel.

4. Include multiple female candidates in all shortlists

The first item on the UK government’s list of effective actions for closing the gender pay gap is that all recruitment shortlists (including shortlists for promotions) have more than one woman. A 2016 Harvard Business Review study showed that shortlists with only one woman do not increase the chance of a woman being selected - in fact the chances of her being selected were statistically zero. The same study showed that the odds of hiring a woman were 79.14 times greater if there were at least two women in the finalist pool.

Read: The government’s list of    effective actions    to close the gender pay gap

Read: The government’s list of effective actions to close the gender pay gap


5. Use skill-based assessment tasks in recruitment

Rather than relying on structured interviews alone, ask candidates to perform tasks they would be expected to perform in the role they are applying for. Use their performance on those tasks to assess their suitability for the role. Standardise the tasks and how they are scored to ensure fairness across candidates. We got some some great tips on different assessment techniques from the University of Sheffield.  

If you’re feeling adventurous you could push the boundaries with a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®interview. Lego serious play pro have some detailed interview methods and case studies using LEGO® to assess candidates’ abilities to resolve complex and unclear issues as well as their creativity, openness, personality, learning potential, ability to self-reflect, motivation, how they handle stress, their communication skills and their customer focus.

6. Advertise diversity & inclusion as an important part of your corporate culture

Diversity is so important that creating and maintaining it shouldn’t be a side task or an after thought, especially in large organisations. More and more companies are recruiting managers or heads of Diversity & Inclusion whose full time job it is to create and run task forces to monitor talent management processes (such as recruitment or promotions) and diversity within the organisation. Diversity & Inclusion managers who are senior enough and empowered to develop and implement diversity strategies and policies, can reduce biased decisions in recruitment and nurture and grow extremely valuable employee diversity networks within the organisation.

In their article How To Alter Your Hiring Practices To Increase Diversity Forbes say: “People will hire based on “fit” - and that often means “people like us.” Instead, if you build a culture where fit means people who expand who we are, then diversity will be germane to your future success.” We wholeheartedly agree.

Read:    Our People    Aviva

Read: Our People Aviva

Read:    Inclusion & Diversity    Accenture

Read: Inclusion & Diversity Accenture


7. Offer Flexibility

The World Economic Forum identifies work-life balance as one of the main barriers to hiring and promoting women across industries. One senior director we spoke to told us that flexibility was probably the key factor in her wanting to stay with her company after becoming a mother “My kids' daycare closed at 6pm and my ‘official’ working day finished at 5:30pm. The problem was that my office was over an hour’s commute from the nursery. I loved my job, I wanted to be back at work, I didn't want or even need to go part time...all I needed was to be able to get to the nursery for 6pm. I arranged to change my working hours to start earlier and finish earlier and include at least a day from home a week. That flexibility, which was really no big deal for the company, resulted in me being happy and productive at work and crucially, in me choosing to stay with them”

Traditional methods of carrot and stick motivation are now being widely recognised as outdated. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink possets that motivation is all about autonomy, mastery and purpose. He also argues that motivation is largely intrinsic and that extrinsic factors (like waving a bonus in front of someone) are unlikely to have a motivating effect (in fact, studies detailed in Drive show that financial reward can actually reduce productivity, particularly on tasks where innovative thinking is required). Companies that allow employees the freedom and trust to work autonomously, understand that flexibility is an obvious necessity to this. Rigid working hours, a presentee culture and the fear of punishment are all no-nos when it comes to building and fostering motivated engaged workforces - and are also no-nos for employing and retaining staff with family commitments.

Flexibility doesn't necessarily mean “part time” and assumptions like this (and stigmas around “flexible working”) are why some women feel apprehensive about approaching the topic of flexibility at work. “Provide flexibility in the day.” Say Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce in their article Flexibility Key to Retaining Women “Some women don't require reduced work hours; they merely need flexibility in when, where, and how they do their work.” their research showed that almost two-thirds (64%) of women cited flexible work arrangements as being either extremely or very important to them and by a considerable margin, highly qualified women found flexibility more important than compensation.

Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation


8. Make your family policy competitive and compassionate

I say family policies instead of maternity policy because companies are waking up to the realisation that parenthood isn’t a women’s issue. Nor is parenthood the only issue; employees looking after aged or other family members require just as much flexibility and compassion as parents.

Outdated maternity leave policies are fast being overtaken by parental leave policies which are so competitive that we should expect attracting and retaining dads and dads-to-be to become just as big of a concern as it is with mums. Companies are realising that being “family friendly” and rolling out policies such as paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers is a great way to recruit and retain both men and women.

Look at how your business can support parents once they return to work; creches, help with childcare and initiatives like return to work coaching, are all on offer at companies like Facebook, Google and Netflix and are being widely adopted by many others. It’s no secret that the cost of childcare in the Uk is often a key factor in women deciding to leave the workforce. As an employer, if you are in a position to assist employees with the cost of childcare, we would recommend it.

In ‘Lean In’, Sheryl Sandberg comments on how parking by the front of a building for pregnant employees was a small change her company made which she appreciated. You may not be able to offer parking spaces but the point here is that little things can go a long way when considering how you can be more accommodating to your pregnant female staff. Flexible hours, expectant mother staff benefits and support around medical appointments (for both parents) are all ways to make life easier for parents.

9. Create & Nurture Employee Diversity Networks

Employee networks can be a force for effecting real change within organisations. Encouraging employees to come together into groups to champion diversity at a grassroots level is how companies like Nokia are empowering employees to effect change. @StrongHer is Nokia’s award winning example of an employee network that promotes gender diversity by offering networking opportunities, personal development, exposure to diverse role models for women and men.

As well as creating a strong sense of empowerment and a feeling of inclusion and belonging in employees, networks like this can provide employers with invaluable insight into problems and gaps they might not have identified otherwise. Nokia say that StrongHer has been an eye-opener on the many causes for low representation of women in the ICT industry and in leadership roles. Through the network they discovered that there isn’t just one “glass-ceiling”, but some frequent explicit or more implicit patterns and reasons at various steps of women’s life and career, caused by others and even women themselves. Insights like this give employers a deeper understanding of specific issues which are threatening or even halting diversity, and the valuable opportunity to address them through and with the help of the network.

If your organisation isn’t big enough to have its own employee diversity networks consider encouraging employees to start, host or join regular diversity meetups or Lean In Circles in your local area.

Tools: Join   Lean In Circles    in your local area

Tools: Join Lean In Circles in your local area

Tools: join regular diversity    meetups

Tools: join regular diversity meetups


10. Model diversity from the top down

CEOs need to aim for diversity at the very top of the company. In achieving this they will experience, first hand, what is needed to make diversity happen; from finding and recruiting diverse candidates to creating an environment suitable to retaining and engaging a diverse team. They will also directly experience the benefits a diverse team can bring to an organisation.

In a 2017 PWC survey nearly 70% of female participants working in Financial Services said they looked at the diversity of the leadership team when deciding to accept a position with their most recent employer.

Even if the most senior team is not yet as diverse as it could be, they can (and should) still model policies aimed at encouraging diversity. Seeing the most senior members of an organisation exemplifying all the policies they have put in place is the most effective way of embedding them. An employee in middle management is far more likely to take advantage of the flexible work arrangements on offer if they see the executive directors doing it - and talking about it.