Think you're recruiting fairly? Well think again

3 November 2016

David Hancock, head of construction at the Cabinet Office, said he was mooting quotas to boost women's presence in construction. Paul Fox, founder of Constructive Coaching, is all in favour.

Paul Fox

Quotas, target setting and positive action need to be on the table to shift our industry’s woeful female board level representation.

Both men and women tell me positive discrimination is bad because selection should only be based on objective criteria – the best person for the job should always be hired, whether that person is male or female. In an ideal world meritocracies are it.

The problem is the incumbent male majority genuinely believe that they are choosing the best person for the job, it just so happens that that person is the grey-haired, middle-aged white guy… again.

Our prejudices are so ingrained that it is tough to see outside of them, so when the right female candidate rocks up we men (and women, studies show) just can’t see or hear how fit for purpose she is.

We honestly, with good heart and intent, believe we have chosen fairly and chosen the best person for the job – and the status quo is maintained. In the world of a potentially diverse workforce, at the top end, nothing’s going to change as long as that “belief system” and inherent bias is influencing the choice.

Dr David Hancock, head of construction at the Cabinet Office, is considering endorsing gender quotas for women on government-funded construction projects. He said: “I was never one for quotas in the industry or using it but I’m moving towards that thinking.”

I don’t exactly know why he is “moving towards that thinking”, but I’d like to think it is something I’ve learned from the military called “inevitability management”.

Recently I’ve been engaging with senior officers implementing the introduction of women into the Royal Marines, a mandate ordered by the government this summer. An educated guess would say that 90% of serving Royal Marines and probably more retired Marines are against this. This is a big deal.

Inevitability planning

However, policy officers in the Royal Navy and Marines saw this “inevitability” a while back and have been planning how to make it work on the ground, how to turn this into an opportunity, sending conditioning messages, organising themselves and now actively recruiting into the small talent pool. 

It was inevitable and when things are inevitable, resistance is a waste of energy and opportunities are overlooked.

It is inevitable that we are going to experience a greater shortfall of engineers in this country and possibly it’s going to get worse once Brexit is under way with immigration changes. The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%, while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30%.

Are my detractors going to tell me we can’t learn from Cyprus or Bulgaria and set a +20% target benchmarked against a precedent that already exists?

Over the past few decades, the orchestral music world has undergone a revolution. Many musicians thought that male conductors were abusing their power and playing favourites to male selection.

Now, after robust action and strategy change in the orchestra selection process, potential musicians are identified not by name but by number. Screens are erected between the interviewing committee and the auditioner. Selection is made on technical merit and the possibility of unconscious bias has been removed.

"My male colleagues go on about meritocracy like it's going to be actually that difficult to better current results produced mostly by men."

As these affirmative new rules were put in place around the world, an extraordinary thing happened: orchestras began to hire women (from 5% to 25% since the 1970s). Imagine what a 15% uplift in women senior construction positions would do for recruitment and retention – it would be a virtuous cycle.

I believe we won’t see big equality gains in the construction sector anytime soon, until we establish quotas or take affirmative action and set targets for women on boards.

Someone famously said: “I will know that we have reached equality when a mediocre woman is put in charge of a company.”

My male colleagues talk as if we industry men have reached astounding levels of competence and effectiveness. They go on about meritocracy like it’s going to be actually that difficult to better current results produced mostly by men or that women will screw things up. It’s not as if the construction sector is a beacon of productivity and innovation is it gents?

The slow embrace of technology, adversarial cultures, fragmentation and low productivity have all been maintained pretty exclusively under the male watch. 

Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We believe we are balanced decision makers, able to fairly size up a job candidate and reach a rational conclusion that’s in our organisation’s best interests. Two decades of unconscious bias research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception.

Some adopt the attitude of “I’ll not cast the first stone. I’m grateful that I notice the ‘unconscious bias’ pretty quick these days. But consider the following scenario:

Last week in a major contractor’s office I was asked if I’d like to meet Sam the head of engineering. Sam walks in and I’m momentarily surprised to note “he” is wearing a dress. Oh yes, Sam is also a women’s name… my shame quickly kicks in.

At least these days it might take me 0.05 of a second to catch those kind of thoughts and make a mental note that I’m a human work in progress. 

Is that pleasant or easy to admit? No, but it’s the truth and those males who are honest enough to enter into this conversation will also admit to stubborn bias that they would rather not have.

The case for quotas

Most western nations are now dictating quotas for female board representation and there is nothing stopping boards setting targets for diversity right now — hence Lord Davies setting a target of 33% of women on FTSE 350 boards by 2020.

Board diversity enhances board performance. There is now an overwhelmingly strong business case. Quotas and targets are just a mechanism, a tool to achieve the outcome we all want to see. So let’s get over it and get on with it.

Let me conclude by asking the following questions:

There are very valid reasons why it will be difficult to create gender equality – but none that can’t be overcome with strength of will and leadership.

I suspect my male friends out there absolutely believe that strength of will overcomes all obstacles and practice that on a daily basis. We either find a way, or we find an excuse.


This is a very complex area and I think the approach taken here is perhaps a little oversimplified. I agree with quotas on boards, there is evidence that this works with critical mass playing a major part in that reasoning. BUT Quotas in the construction workforce are not something that I can get on board with. In fact I believe that it will drive more established women out of industry through creating role not responsibility and undermining the capability of those already working in the sector. I appreciate the benevolent position taken by David but we must factor in the make up of the construction industry and the fact that we do not have total control over messages given to staff in terms of knowledge and behavioral reinforcement. If you want to improve the make up of women in your business you need to consider a longer term approach, that at very least, appreciates the inequalities that continue to manifest past recruitment stage. For those who feel real change is important to their business bottom line feel free to get in touch

Chrissi, 4 November 2016

The UK has had the distinction of being hailed as the very home of the democratic system of government which centres on the undeniable and non-sexist right each and every citizen to choose their very own career path in their lives on merit and unhindered by fear or favour! Employment quotas are UNDEMOCRATIC!

Mr Jose' Scalabrino MCIOB, 5 November 2016

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