Sunday, June 25, 2006

Diversity initiatives in employers as a symptom of decline?

I have been wanting to write this post in a long time. I still haven't reached a conclusive answer but there's one issue I'm thinking about a lot. It's about diversity initiatives of big employers, in particular women's initiatives. The truth is, I'm still not sure if they are such a good thing (though on the surface they obviously bring advantages to women working in those companies).

What got me thinking was a comment made by a senior colleague I've worked a lot with over the last years. Before becoming a management consultant, he worked for Hewlett Packard for many years. One day he was commenting how HP used to be a great company but that now it had lost much of its attractiveness. Then he went on to say that it was when more and more women reached the top levels of HP when things really started to go down. I was startled by the remark because he is a very fair and reasonable person who has enjoyed working with me and has respected and supported me very much over the last couple of years. So I concluded that his observation might have been correct, I think he just got the causal relationship wrong. Maybe things were starting to go down at exactly that time, but I believe the decline of males in the company was not the cause but the effect of the decline.

I have found a lot of evidence for this hypothesis. Doesn't it surprise you that investment banks and management consultancies are launching all these women's initiatives these days? Doesn't it surprise you that when things went badly in 2001/2002, these same companies fired women in droves, and now they somehow want to have a lot of women working for them? Obviously, they say they want "the best talent" and therefore can't focus only on 50% of the "talent pool". Though this makes sense, I think it is also a symptom of the declining attractiveness of an employer - for some reason, the top students aren't applying as much anymore, so they need to go fishing for applicants in additional "pools". For example, have you ever heard of any private equity firms launching "women's initiatives"? No? Isn't it interesting? They have not even got half of the female share of i-banks and consultancies, but they don't feel the need. The industry is booming but somehow they can hire more than enough people fishing only from 50% of the talent pool, because many guys who would have wanted to work in i-banks and consultancies in the old days want to workfor PE or VC firms nowadays.

This is one thing I observed at the admits weekend: lots of guys I talked to want to go to "Private Equity or Venture Capital". One fellow admit from India even joked at dinner "if I hear the word Private Equity one more time today, I'm leaving!!". Equally, my husband commented the next day that all the female partners he talked to during the partners' club event proudly declared "my husband wants to work in PE" and "my boyfriend wants to work in PE". So, interestingly, most of the guys now want to work in PE (=more money than IB/MC), while the women are happy and grateful that for some mysterious reason, the i-banks and management consultancies are hosting women's events and handing out scholarships.

So that is what I think about the whole issue. I think women should control their enthusiasm about these developments. We should think harder about what they mean. In the most likely case, they mean that there are more attractive and better paid jobs out there now, and that guys have higher aspirations/ higher self confidence and go for the most attractive jobs. At the same time guys start looking for other jobs to take, women are grateful to get the chance to work in very tough jobs that were previously associated with high prestige but have already peaked.

I know this post may be provocative or disappointing to some, but I think it helps to be realistic about what's going on in the job market. Also, I'm hoping to hear other people's thoughts on this issue, since as I said I haven't made up my mind yet about what to think about these developments.


RusGirl said...

Interesting thought! You might be right about that.
However, I don't think that "if women come everything will be spoilt here" and many-many people do not choose career because of trends. They have more robust reasons, like: "I dreamt to become a gangster in my childhood - they are so coool!" or "they hired me while noone else wanted to" or "parents told me to be a doctor" (joking, of course :))

Pirate said...

Well as far as Europe is concerned the best place to go for PE is Insead, or so i thought.
Specific schools "tend to" attract a specific profile. IB has been an attractive option for most LBS admits and since a branch off after a few years in IB could lead to PE, the switchover was perhaps natural.
What perhaps is missed is that we (LBS) don't have an extensive PE network. May be this is the beginning.
I guess its a fad and once the shakeup happens, which is expected, normalcy will resume.

Kate said...

This was a very thought-provoking post. While I agree it is beneficial for employers to ensure they have full access to the talent pool when recruiting, I am also uncomfortable with “women’s initiatives”, and the idea of being identified as a “woman in business” in general.

I’m not sure why so few women seem to be interested in Private Equity and other “non-traditional” careers (as an aside, I work in Mergers & Acquisitions and am currently the only female member of the team) but I think that there are a number of problems with attempting to attract talented individuals by marketing to groups based on sex (or race). In fact, I think I would be less inclined to accept an offer from an organization I knew to be specifically targeting women.

I attended (with some hesitation) the Women In Business Club brunch during admits weekend and will be interested to better understand the role of this club at London Business School. I think of myself as a business person … I’m not sure any other label is more helpful than harmful.

Gaurav said...

hahaha. I know - VC/PE does seem to overwhelm doesn't it. Well, I think it might be useful to look at why so many people at the school are in this elusive (art of) Private Equity. It could be a "been there, done that" with other fields (executing, consulting) and now ready to direct other companies. I know that IB's demand is driven a lot by everyone's talking about so I definitely wanna try it mentality - and don't worry - you will all get sucked into that sooner than you would like to believe.

mbayisyen said...

Interesting post. Wouldn't you argue that maybe women are somewhat smarter as they don't have as much of a herd mentality as the males do?
Also, don't most PE shops hire people whom they feel most comfortable with? They will usually be just like them, same gender, similar background,etc.
i wouldn't say the companies that are starting diversity initiatives are in decline. They have reached an apex and are looking to stay at the top. They have now the inclination to look at pools they had neglected so far as a way to find employees that will help them stay in that position. Standards are not going down, they are just using a wider net to catch good candidates who might not have been interested in IB or MC. As far as I know, all these IB/MC firms are for-profit orgs. and if these diversity initiative programs didn't pay off, they wouldn't exist.

angie said...

Interesting thoughts, thank you! Let's keep the discussion going :-). Just some additional thoughts:

- Rusgirl, one would think people choose careers for other reasons than money, but then you wonder about the career "dreams" of most MBA students, right? Somehow most always "happen" to want to work in high paying jobs, sometimes without even knowing what they entail, that's what I find a bit suspicious :-).

VJ: I also think the PE hype is a fad, it will be over much sooner than any consulting and IB hype ever lasted.

Kate: I also have mixed feelings about these things, to be honest I was happy when my employer launched an initiative and I liked attending some workshops they did for women, they were certainly helpful. On the other hand one has to be very careful about the positioning, it should not be seen as "help for the weak".

Gaurav: interesting point, you may be right! People all come from IB/MC and that's why they want to do something different, right? I hope I won't be drawn into the hype, good thing is I did some PE work within my job (a "value creation" project for a big London based PE firm) and it put me off PE for the rest of my life.

Mbayisyen, I guess it depends on your definition of "smart". Women do tend to put self-fulfillment and health over money and success much more than men do, and in some way that it definitely smart and healthy. On the other hand it can interfere with financial independence (relying on your husband to bring in the money) which then turns out to be less smart. So I guess in some way they're smarter, in some way more careless, and overall we're even :-). Apart from that, completely agree that the initiatives pay off for them, no doubt about it. I just think they start thinking about these things whenever they become less attractive compared to other options.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was a really thought provoking post, so I had to respond. I also happen to be in several of the situations you've discussed, namely I am about to attend LBS and I currently work at a top MC that is one of the most well known of them all for its women's initiatives (especially working mothers).

Basically, I think the original post is correct. I think it is a sign of decline. Quite frankly, I feel like the initiative exists to try to capture top businesswomen that are borderline able to move into PE or other top IBs/MCs. In my Firm's case, they are happy with whatever mix of "traditional" genders and races agree to sign on, but are only willing to expend the extra effort to capture the groups that have the weakest applicant quality.

I personally will only target organizations to work for where I can turn in strong performance and be rewarded accordingly. Trust me, I don't want any special treatment for being, in my case, a white male. Why would I join an organization that promotes an individual simply based on race or gender? I really respect the poster who is outright uncomfortable with being labeled a "businesswoman". We can all stand on our own two feet and I don't think special treatment does anybody good in the competitive worlds we're discussing here.

Anonymous said...

Angie - an interesting idea, however I think it's a bit shortsighted. I agree with mbayisyen's thoughts: people like to work with people who look/talk like themselves. This means that whatever career you look at, high tech, PE, consulting, it's the men who started it and until a couple of women made it in, kept it all male.
Once the women start getting hired, then slowly they help to raise the diversity bar. Look at Microsoft or Google - they're both diversity driven, but not in decline.