Vivienne Porritt

How to recruit a more diverse leadership team

Diversity within an organisation leads to improved decision making, according to research. So, have you got the right mix in your SLT? Vivienne Porritt of #WomenEd suggests different approaches to recruitment to attract a wider range of candidates

How to bring more diversity to your leadership team

Given that we’re in the prime period of the year for recruitment in schools, it’s a good time to consider whether your middle and senior leadership teams are as balanced as you want them to be.

How many women are on your senior leadership team (SLT)? How many people of colour? What’s the balance like in terms of age, experience, flexible working and diverse thinking? And would you know about sexual orientation or disability? The big question is whether this matters.

I’m nodding along with everyone who is saying that the only thing that matters is appointing the right person to the job. That’s crucial when deciding who to hire from those you call to interview, and it’s not always easy during a recruitment crisis.

But if you lose people from the very beginning of the process, you may not see an application from the person you really need.

Evidence from business suggests a strong correlation between a diverse organisation and improved decision making, as well as the ability to attract and retain great leaders. There is a strong case for creating diverse SLTs that result in a broader repertoire of leadership behaviours and actions.

Here’s what to consider when attempting to redress the balance.

Leading by example

It’s very important to show commitment to increasing diversity from the governors/trustees and senior leaders of the school, academy or trust. Talk to your staff about this and reiterate the importance of diversity to all staff, including support staff.

Check your school’s gender pay gap, as this is indicative of the balance between the roles of women and men in your organisation. Let women know that you want to do this because you think it’s important, and involve them in how you address gaps.

Have a look at the resources and blogs from grassroots groups such as #WomenEd, BAMEed, LGBTed and #DisabilityEd and organise an event or CPD session through them. You could implement American football’s Rooney Rule, which states that a black or minority-ethnic candidate must be interviewed for senior positions. Education needs to catch up with other sectors.

Recruitment adverts

The advert and materials used in recruitment are crucial to attract as wide and diverse a field as possible. Unconscious bias in job adverts is significant.

The worst advert I ever saw said governors wanted a head with “gravitas” and “sporting values” – both clearly code for men. As well as the moral objection, this is very foolish in the grip of a tough recruitment crisis.

Include a statement saying that you want diverse teams and “welcome applications from …” (the end of this statement depends on what would help you to balance your team).

An example of this is to welcome applications from those looking to work flexibly. Schools can improve their application conversion rate across the majority of subjects if they show a willingness to be flexible.

The language you choose in your job adverts is also vital. Most people respond to words in an unconscious, stereotypical way.

An online gender decoder allows you to input your job advert text and it will highlight stereotypically feminised and masculinised words. Sadly, the word “leader” comes up as masculinised. I’m not suggesting that you change all of your text to feminised words; rather, ensure a balance and you will attract more women to apply.

Think about the images in your advertising materials and include a range of men, women, people of colour and someone with a visible disability to tell readers that you understand the importance of diverse teams.

Another option is to practise blind recruitment, redacting names, age, personal pronouns and qualifications before the shortlisting panel sees the personal statement. All such details need to be on a separate sheet to make the job less onerous. The person doing the redacting informs the panel which applicants have all the essential requirements. Blind recruitment has limitations, but it may be the best tool we have so far and it might stop what one study reported – that “individuals with ‘white-sounding’ names were 50 per cent more likely to reach interview stage”.

The interview

Ensure that your interview panel is also diverse, so you hear divergent views before you reach a consensus. The same goes for the students who may talk with candidates or show them around.

Ensure that questions are ethical and fair. In #WomenEd, we still hear horror stories of women being asked whether they want more children or which football team they support. Assess whether candidates are aligned with your organisational values and beliefs.

Feedback to applicants

Feedback needs to be offered to those who were unsuccessful at interview and it needs to be ethical. After all, you want unsuccessful candidates to sing the praises of your organisation.

Be constructive and tell candidates what strengths they exhibited. Tell them what else was needed to have secured the role – knowledge, experience, awareness and so on – but avoid saying they weren’t a good fit or not what you were looking for: these vague phrases don’t help candidates to improve.

Don’t be discriminatory. Claire-Marie Cuthbert, CEO of the Evolve Trust in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, tells a story in #WomenEd’s book of being unsuccessful at her first headship interview and being given the feedback that the school’s mining community would prefer a man. That wasn’t something that Claire could work towards.

To achieve a brilliant balancing act is a tough ask, but it’s worth putting the effort in. It’s about creating an environment where leaders can be their authentic selves: and for this, they will repay you every day.

Vivienne Porritt is a leadership consultant, strategic leader of #WomenEd and vice-president of the Chartered College of Teaching. She is co-editor of 10% Braver: inspiring women to lead education and tweets @ViviennePorritt

This article originally appeared in the 21 February 2020 issue under the headline “The balancing act: how to bring more diversity into your leadership team”

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