A Woman in the Room

Much has been written, debated, and argued regarding gender diversity in the workplace in the last week since the Google “episode”, though the focus has largely been on the tech industry. I would suggest the issues being raised are not isolated to Silicon Valley, nor to Wall Street, where I have thus far spent my career.

There is an excellent op-ed in today’s New York Times by Katharine Zeleski . It is well written and brings to light serious flaws within the hiring process at many tech firms. She points out how often, companies lose diverse candidates during the interview itself as the session becomes a turnoff to young women considering employment with said firm. Those who sit across the table fail to look beyond the gender and get stuck at as she calls it, “cultural fit”. I would like to hope this phenomenon, for lack of a better word, is inadvertent, and largely due to unconscious bias on behalf of the interviewers. But from what I saw throughout my 15+ year career at a large investment bank is that often, those conducting the interviews — or even the informal coffee or desk conversation before or after the interview — do not know how to properly market the actual job, let alone the values of the firm, to women. Often, they are men.

In my career, I was a bond trader. To say I was in the minority would be an understatement. I may also be in the minority by saying I loved that I did something very few women did; I used my status to my advantage. I am the first to say I am not a feminist, at least not in the liberal left-leaning sense of those who today march wearing pink hats and in the past, burned their bras. I am also the first one to say I strongly believe the best person for the job should get the job; no woman should be hired (or NOT hired) merely based on her gender.

The keyword here is best. Everyone has his or her own definition and vision of what the best person for the job entails; this is also often a predisposition. Ask anyone on Wall Street over the last several decades who the best person to hire would be and you’d likely get a smattering of answers including something to the effect of “oh, my buddy I played lax with at Princeton would be a good fit” or “a client of mine’s son is a junior in college, I think it’s worth bringing him in”. Today, many managers have been beaten down by failing marks on diversity reports and in turn, find themselves telling HR and campus recruiting “I need to hire a woman”. What we need is something in between.

No woman (or any minority) wants to get hired because she checks a box. Taking shortcuts to hire won’t serve to move the needle longer term. Because at the end of the day, if the new employee isn’t fully embraced by the team and treated as an equal, he/she is going to quickly find herself miserable at work and looking for another job. On the trading floor where I worked, as in many open concept plans popular in the workplace today, there was very little privacy and sadly, employees spend more hours a day with colleagues than they do with family. To lose a young employee, male or female, is a huge loss to a firm who has spent years and significant financial resources on recruiting and training. How can firms reduce these types of departures? I would argue we can’t just blame millennials for not having the work ethic of previous generations; responsibility lies with those who have been promoted and paid in accordance with exceptional performance (on Wall Street, as in tech, this does not necessarily correlate to age or years or service). A key responsibility of any hiring manager should be the careful consideration of who you put in front of a candidate.

Employees who are entrusted with interviewing anyone of any age, any gender, in any industry, must realize the conversation is more a sales pitch than an interrogation (I do realize this statement reeks of “snowflake”). But, today, college graduates are entering a workforce with the lowest unemployment rate we’ve seen in over ten years. Anyone with a STEM degree is being wooed by countless industries. Minority candidates, including women, are coveted to fulfill all those diversity benchmarks (don’t call them quotas). As much as a candidate can derail himself or herself for a variety of reasons in an interview (or on social media!), it is clear the employer can do equal if not more damage.

Like Ms. Zaleski, I encourage all firms, all hiring managers, to put women in the interview room. Put women on the decision committee. I don’t care if she may not be the most senior person in terms of title, or the employee with the most impressive resume. She may be young, but perhaps the lens through which she looks has less judgement and cynicism and more creativity. The tactics that worked in the past — dangling dollar signs and parading out the big egos — clearly do not work in today’s society. I am willing to bet a woman conducting an interview will truly listen to the candidate. She will give honest answers about her job, the firm, the culture, the candidate’s other opportunities. She will keep an open mind. She will look for the best, but will also want the best for the person across the table from her.

Technology continues to change the workplace, and now interviews are often conducted on the phone and via Skype. Potential employers no longer just read a one-page paper resume the candidate slides across the table at the onset of the interview. They Google you on their cell phone before you walk in the door of the conference room. They scour LinkedIn profiles, watch YouTube videos, read blogs, and see play by play photos of your previous weekend and past relationships. By the time someone has actually gotten to the interview itself, isn’t it almost a formality? A candidate wouldn’t have gotten this far if he/she had not passed a much more intense vetting process than many years ago. But more than likely, that same candidate is playing the field, swiping left or right, to use a millennial term.

For this reason, it becomes even more important the representative of the firm seize the interview to tell the story that is your firm. Make it personal, build a connection. And if you hire the person across the table, but don’t manage them, you can still follow their career, foster their growth. As a manager or HR executive, think again before you ask the Managing Director who runs the biggest balance sheet at the firm to sit down with a key candidate. Is there someone who may not be as distracted by a Blackberry during the meeting and in turn may not drive the candidate out the door and across the street to your competition, or worse, out of the industry altogether? Those seeking jobs today aren’t as impressed by what defined success in the past; they want to feel they are a part of a team who can and will rewrite the standards of society. Chances are, involving women in the hiring process will result in not only hiring the best candidates, but also hiring more women.

It is hard enough to hire and retain qualified candidates today, why make it even harder by putting the wrong person in the most important room? Put a woman in the room.