Headhunters take on Cable over all-women shortlists

TOP City headhunters, including the female recipient of an OBE for services to workplace gender equality, have questioned the value of having all-women shortlists for boardroom appointments.
Sue O'Brien, the group managing director at Norman Broadbent. Picture: ContributedSue O'Brien, the group managing director at Norman Broadbent. Picture: Contributed
Sue O'Brien, the group managing director at Norman Broadbent. Picture: Contributed

Business Secretary Vince ­Cable has called for an investigation into the idea, which he believes could lead to more women taking top posts at Britain’s leading companies, even if it means excluding men entirely from the recruitment process.

But headhunters have warned the proposal is fraught with legal difficulties, is unfair, and could backfire. Sue O’Brien, chief executive of City recruitment consultants, Norman Broadbent, said: “We always look for a diverse shortlist. It’s the headhunter’s responsibility to provoke the thinking of their clients. But I don’t agree with 100 per cent female shortlists. We have to make sure that the top, say, four candidates for a job are the best four people.

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“If two of the best four are male they should not be precluded from a shortlist. Otherwise it does not do the right service to either candidates or companies.”

Cable has said the headhunting community is “a crucial catalyst” to introducing more capable women into the boardroom. He has asked the UK’s equality body, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, to offer “guidance” for recruitment specialists on when and how women-only shortlists could be used in accordance with the law.

However, O’Brien’s intervention will be seen as embarrassing for the Business Secretary as she is a founding member of the Women’s Business Council and received an OBE for her commitment to gender equality in the New Year honours list.

O’Brien added: “It’s right that the candidates can do the job adequately. I don’t see a problem if the best two candidates in the end were both men.

“I believe in gender equality, I promote it in the workplace. Mr Cable is entitled to his commentary. But my job is to answer to executive management and do our best to provide the right candidate of whatever gender.”

Other City headhunters warned that the idea of women-only shortlists remained a legal minefield. “It would be an unwelcome complication in the lives of executive search specialists,” one said.

“For example, all-women shortlists are not currently used in the private sector because they are fraught with legal difficulties and leave companies open to sex discrimination claims.”

Jonathan Evans, chairman of blue-chip recruitment consultants Sammons Associates, said: “Many search firms are already visibly supporting board chairmen and board-ready women to achieve gender parity.

“Companies would need to demonstrate that there are no men of equal merit available for the proposed job, otherwise just appointing women without merit would backfire and cause failure.”