Professional headhunters can only scratch surface of the glass ceiling

Working women

November 18, 1991|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Executive recruiters, the headhunters who find top executives for employers, often play a role in keeping women and minorities out of top jobs.

Even if they only are following their clients' orders.

The recent study released by the Labor Department on the glass ceiling -- the discriminatory barrier that keeps qualified women and minorities from moving to executive levels -- points out that one of the reasons women plateau at lower management levels is that corporations do not instruct headhunters to include females among the candidate mix.

Another problem: the scarcity of female headhunters.

These factors make it difficult for women to climb the corporate ladder, but with the general awareness that white men will make up only 15 percent of new entrants to the labor force in this decade, the search picture is beginning to change.

"The number of women in executive search is increasing rather dramatically," said James H. Kennedy, editor and publisher of Executive Recruiter News based in Fitzwilliam, N.H.

His recent study of 5,880 key principals in more than 2,286 search firms shows that 1,324, or 22.5 percent, are women. In 1982, only 12.2 percent of leading headhunters were female. "And the number of women at the associate consultant level has probably risen even more sharply," Kennedy said.

At the same time, employers are beginning to accept qualified female candidates. "I'm optimistic that things are getting better," said Claudia Liebesny, president of Human Resource Research, a high-technology search firm in Concord, Mass. "Today, there's very little innuendo on the part of clients that they are not interested in seeing women candidates, and many of the corporate human resource people doing the hiring are women. There's been a dramatic change in electronic firms, for instance, where women are moving into director and vice presidential levels."

Liebesny, director of the Boston affiliate of the International Association of Personnel Women, started her search firm in 1985, when "it became clear to me as a product manager for an industrial firm that it would be difficult for them to choose a woman for a senior management role."

Though she says affirmative action laws are not being enforced, Liebesny, who has a master's degree in management from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sees executive slots opening up for women because "the old boy network isn't the only methodology now being used to find candidates. More and more, search firms are using in-depth research to identify the candidate pool, and that has an inherently lower bias level."

Executive recruiters often are in a bind because "we really function as consultants to employers and can only advise and XTC suggest," said Janet Tweed, co-founder of Gilbert Tweed Associates in New York, a top international executive search firm. "In every Gilbert Tweed search where females surface as candidates, we bring them in on the slate. We fight hard for women. Unfortunately, when a woman is put up against four male counterparts, she often has a deficit in experience. Women are not pulled along so rapidly as men by corporations, so they come in as bridesmaids -- they don't get the job."

Tweed, whose staff of recruiters is half female, says opportunities for women "depend on the progressiveness and sophistication of the CEO in the company. I thought 15 years ago it was going to change faster, and it's a shame it hasn't. The problem today is men still buy men to run executives searches much more often than women."

Sensitizing clients to the need for women and minority executives is a responsibility of search consultants, according to Laura Phelps, partner in the international executive search firm of Ward Howell International Inc.

"More companies are aware that in order to be competitive in the future they need to start now to recruit females and minorities," said Phelps, a Chicago-based consultant who specializes in searches for tax departments and corporate legal staffs. "And they're doing it because it makes good business sense -- not because the government requires it."

Phelps says since 1989 she has "noticed increasing requests for searches targeting females and minorities." Earlier this year, her office began collecting information on breakthroughs in the glass ceiling and recently issued a report, "Selection, Identification and Recruitment of Minorities and Females," which describes Ward Howell's non-discriminatory search methods.

The report lists national associations, directories and publications with names of likely female candidates. It also lists corporations with "aggressive" recruitment programs for women. Among them: American Express, Campbell Soup, Gannett, Kellogg, 3M, Security Pacific and Xerox.

The search firm also cites top placements it has made for women, ranging from assistant to the chairman at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide to president of the University of Texas at El Paso.

"We want to motivate companies to target females and minorities," said Phelps.

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