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What are some barriers and biases in the hiring process for C-level executives, and have things changed over time? Here we explore some common factors faced by recruiters and how to overcome them.

Age, gender and looks are factors that still consciously and subconsciously impact the final decision in the hiring for C-level positions.  Leaders that carry themselves well and dress up appropriately conveys confidence, credibility and respect to other people.  People are more likely to trust the ‘professional’ looking individual as opposed to a sloppy looking individual, simply because they do not convey self-confidence and do not look trustworthy!

Leaders that carry themselves well and dress up appropriately conveys confidence, credibility and respect to other people.

C-suite roles have greatly evolved over the years, but one thing remains: leadership ability and a sound grip on business fundamentals are still highly sought after. However not all is merit-based, as other factors prone to human bias such as age, gender and appearance also make a huge impact on who gets the role.

Recruiters must be selective in approaching prospective candidates, as hiring parties have much to consider such as timing (the best candidates might not want to wait), profile (whether candidate has the required qualifications and experience) and compensation (the possibility of hiring someone less experienced for a lower sum).

Below are some factors that may affect hiring for C-level positions, including what both recruiters and candidates should be aware of.

Is age just a number?

While having solid experience is certainly valuable, candidates must also stay relevant to compete with younger talents who have similar levels of experience.

Sometimes, in a subconscious act of age discrimination, employers prefer hiring younger candidates because they associate certain qualities with youth. Such qualities may include tech-savviness, energy and stamina, general adaptability and expectation for lower remuneration.[1]

Of course, an older candidate can also embody all these qualities accompanied by years of work experience. To demonstrate this as a candidate, one should stay abreast of the latest developments and software in your specific industry, and keep your resume fresh by showing only experience from the last 10-15 years (nothing older than that unless it’s highly noteworthy).

All is not lost for mature candidates, particularly those in C level positions, as the number of older people continuing to work is expected to rise in the coming years and companies may well benefit from hiring senior candidates, as they can be more proficient at relating to clients and customers under an older demographic.[1] This group may also form the base of legacy customers for some companies, bringing value in terms of loyalty and maintained revenue.

Ultimately, being adaptable to change and staying relevant by keeping up with current trends are efforts to be made by individual candidates, regardless of age.

Does gender make a difference?

Are certain competencies tied to a specific gender? It appears not.

In terms of skill set, both male and female executives in the finance industry were found to have similar levels of competency, with women outperforming men (47% vs 39%) in financial expertise within emerging markets.[2]

According to the December 2019 S&P 500 list, women currently hold 31 (6.2%) CEO positions at these S&P 500 companies.[3] Globally, the percentage of women on boards has increased – from 17.9% in 2018 to 20% in 2019 – based on the MSCI All Country World Index (ACWI) published in 2019.[4]

However some countries still lag behind the global average, which in itself has much room for improvement by having more women in senior management positions.

While personal characteristics and motivations certainly influence real-life decision making, a psychological study found that although both genders were equally strong in terms of willpower, resilience and openness – men tend to have a higher willingness to take risks as compared to women.[5]

Besides personality, this aversion to risk may often be due to family considerations, which is something women tend to display more than men. This could also be due to societal expectations on women to be maternal and family-oriented, which may lead to some women taking a step back in their careers to focus on family.

At the same time, this should not colour the view of recruiters when hiring female candidates, because individual ambitions are vastly different – particularly within recent generations of women who are more educated, informed and independent.

Generalizing the expectations of a whole gender group would cripple the search for promising talents. The focus should be on merit and experience, discarding the lens of long-established gender biases.

Female executives at C-level, possessing their wealth of experience and business acumen, can further mentor younger and less-experienced candidates. Having women in management positions also serves to empower women in junior or managerial positions – demonstrating that this is a reality which is open to them – and that they have as much opportunity to achieve success as their male counterparts.

How much does appearance influence the outcome?

Is it shallow to judge someone based on their looks? Maybe, but it happens all the time.

“Beauty bias” is what makes us attracted to good-looking people, and physical appearance does impact a person’s job prospects and chances for promotion.[1] Looking well has helped people get ahead at work, enabled them to be more persuasive, boosted cooperation with colleagues and increased sale of products.

Obviously, this can lead to overt discrimination e.g. where an employer might prefer an attractive candidate to be the face of their brand, as opposed to a more qualified candidate who may not have the preferred looks.

To stay clear of this, here is a good practice to maintain: what always makes a difference for every candidate is to be well-groomed and professionally dressed. This conveys determination, attention to detail and respect for the task at hand.

Hiring companies can definitely expand their search by looking beyond their current pool of talent and getting rid of common biases. Just as candidates should constantly update their profile, hiring practices should also be updated every once in a while, to ensure the brightest leaders don’t slip through the cracks!

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[1] Source: https://www.jobscan.co/blog/age-discrimination-older-applicants-vs-young-pretty-people/ 

[2] Source: https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/0218/pages/hiring-in-the-age-of-ageism.aspx

[3] Source: https://www.straitstimes.com/business/companies-markets/more-women-directors-in-singapore-companies-but-number-still-lags-global

[4] Source: https://www.catalyst.org/research/women-ceos-of-the-sp-500/

[5] Source: https://www.straitstimes.com/business/companies-markets/more-women-directors-in-singapore-companies-but-number-still-lags-global

[6] Source: https://www.iomcworld.org/open-access/age-and-gender-influence-upon-selfreported-leadership-attributesduring-recruitment-2471-2701-1000140.pdf

[7] Source: https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/beauty-work-physical-appearance-impacts-job-search-careers/