Why Equitable Life stopped men writing job specs

ONE MINUTE BRIEFING: Equitable Life CEO Simon Small reveals how the mutual addressed gender imbalance in its talent pipeline by scrutinising its recruitment process.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 26 Nov 2018

The old adage that business is all about people is never more apparent than after a high-profile, morale-sapping scandal. Take once-mighty mutual Equitable Life, which has had to operate for nearly 20 years with a black mark against its name.

CEO Simon Small and his predecessors have made talent retention and development a priority. In this briefing, he explains how the company addressed its gender imbalance in senior roles, taking the proportion of women from 35-40% to half within two years.


"We felt that just setting a target would mean we’d potentially be promoting women over men for the wrong reasons, which could cause problems with our male workers. So we set a target but said we had to employ the right person for the role.

We looked back to every stage in the food chain of employment, from someone thinking there’s a vacancy to getting a job. What we found was that quite a few of these stages were governed by men, who thought what they were doing was absolutely appropriate. 

Take writing a job spec, which had a 65% probability of a male writing it. A job spec written by a man was very different from one written by a woman, we discovered. A man would write down so many requirements that the person had to be almost god-like to get the job.

What we saw was that when a male went for that job, they probably wouldn’t get to the bottom of the list, they’d assume they could do 80% of these things and they’d wing it on the rest. The women would get to the bottom of the list and decide they couldn’t do the last item, so they didn’t apply at all.

We started having our executive committee write or review these requirements so that it only had ones that were essential. Most of the time, we found women weren’t comfortable putting themselves forward without encouragement, so we started mentoring those two levels below C-suite."

Key takeaways

Screen for hidden recruitment biases. Ideally get someone outside of the normal hiring process.

Set up mentorship programmes. This is generally good practice, for men and women.

Make it measurable. Progress – whether that’s towards a quota, target or otherwise, is unlikely to occur without having some objective way to assess it.

For more information

Three top bosses share their approach to diversity and inclusion in this panel discussion. This research reveals how gender imbalance attracts the unwanted attention of activist investors. Or for a wider view of the need for diversity, read this in depth feature about pervasive ageism.

Image credit: Sharon McCutcheon/Pexels

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