How to Walk the Fine Line between Role Models and Tokenism

Former UK First Lady, Cherie Blair, said on TV that role models “matter” and that it did “not matter” whether the next Labour leader was a woman – for tokenism was “a very negative thing”. Read how we can resolve the dilemma…

Whenever we think or talk about the best person for a job, it is a moment of truth for D&I – particularly when a leadership position is concerned. Mrs Blair, who set up a Foundation to help women entrepreneurs, pointed to implicit assumptions as a key issue there: “This idea that a woman’s place is not at the forefront, that’s a man’s place“, she criticised. While she said role models mattered „for sure“, she also insisted tokenism was a very negative thing and that it should not matter whether the next Labour leader was a woman or a man.

The Dilemma – or vicious circle – of Diversity and Meritocracy

When politics and the public rigorously focus on fair, balanced or equal representation, a holistic discussion about how to get there is sometimes difficult. For some will simple request certain hiring or promotion decisions. A more sustainable and accepted solution, however, requires a thorough revision of the entire search and selection processes – including their application. “It is apparent today that the ‘non-discrimination’ approach in HR introduced ten years ago neither leverages the entire talent pools nor delivers the best candidates,” the D&I Engineer, Michael Stuber, summarises his recent experience in reviewing talent processes. Robust meritocracy required more attention to design details and more consistency in the execution, he added. Existing – or lacking – diversity had to be factored in today, as well as cultural fit.

Read more about D&I and cultural fit

Who do you – really – need versus who are you – really – looking for?

In dynamic business settings, it is more important than ever before to understand – based on analyses – the current and future requirements of a position. This often includes new and different attributes and has a direct impact on the profile of the ‘best person for the job’. Considering the composition of existing teams and stakeholders of the position, some diversity aspects may well influence the ideal profile. “For culturally based competences or age-related experience, this has been widely accepted – so why should it not apply to gender or other demographic factors?” Stuber asks and adds that broadening the idea of excellent candidates is a key to developing a more diverse leadership. With these new images in mind, the next steps will look different as well.

Read more on space suits and ideal candidates and about blind spots when setting up selection frameworks

Where do you look for your ideal candidates – and how?

For the sake of efficiency, the sourcing approach to eligible candidates traditionally used to focus on channels with the highest probability of finding them. This strategy carries a fierce and largely unwanted filtering effect. “Combining D&I-compatible language and images with intelligent, multi-faceted search tools is state of the arts today”, Stuber summarises. His experience shows that increasing the competition for senior positions will not put off any good candidate – as long as the playing field is levelled and transparent. This, in turn, requires clarity and fairness in the selection mechanisms – yet another area of concern from a D&I perspective.

Read more on where to find best talent and on creative sourcing

How do you select your long and short lists?

When you think about selection procedures and focus on judgement errors, it is well intended but only half of the scope that you need to cover. Recent studies confirm that the predictive value of tests will dramatically increase the quality of your short lists – even when you already do structured interviews with diverse panels. Another, strongly underrated aspect was found by another research: one woman on a shortlist has close to no chance to be selected – for she will serve as a token and will be perceived as the exception rather than as one of several top qualified candidates. “Taking the best talent decision requires a combination of quality insight and balanced, diverse short lists”, Stuber concludes this part of his “D&I in HR” insights.

Read more about implicit norms in selection processes

How to promote meritocracy and diversity while avoiding tokenism and quota

Moving the needle on your D&I metrics requires a lot more than just setting ambitious targets and taking symbolic hiring decisions. Some years of ‘quota driven’ discussions in several parts of the EU have shown the cost of perceived reversed discrimination. As often, the most effective solution starts with a robust WHY that explains the need to tap into the diversity of each talent pool – external and internal alike. It continues with unbiased language, images and search tools – the WHAT – and concludes with insight-based decision-taking including control mechanisms – the objective HOW. “While this approach takes a little longer than simplistic quota, we see vast advantages”, Stuber explains. We get everybody’s buy-in from the start, we have quality control throughout the process and finally, we get accepted hires who not only add value but who will also stay – unlike the many symbolic hires that were rejected and eventually left. “Using D&I metrics as a means to measure progress rather than confusing them with objectives is critical to end the divisiveness of the current debate,” Stuber concludes. As a result, tokenism will also disappear and diverse talent will be considered for what it is: great talent.

Read more about effective and toxic effects of targets