Another hidden bias in leadership selection (especially for women)

By Katherine Street

Friday May 13, 2016

Woman run to new opportunities. Leadership metaphor

The public sector needs to stop expecting leaders to be technical experts and start expecting them to be leadership experts. The bias is particularly damaging for women and stifles organisations’ ability to think creatively.

Many public sector departments are expecting leaders to have the wrong skills to be selected for leadership roles. This stems from a hidden bias that is particularly impacting the selection of women leaders.

The story of Renee, a section manager with a state government department, illustrates the problem:

As a career coach I listened quietly, watching as confusion, anger, resignation and lots of frustration radiated from Renee, a woman who had always been the epitome of calm.

Renee had put an enormous amount of effort into applying for and doing the necessary interview preparation for an executive role.  I had rarely seen anyone put in as much effort.

Renee was an strong candidate.  Over the last seven years she had taken on the management of first one small dysfunctional team then a larger one, turning both around. Her leadership style was firm yet warm and respectful, it engendered trust, cohesion, exceptional effort, high achievement, innovation and progress from the teams she managed. She was very ready to move to the next level of leadership.

But she had not been successful. Deemed not the best candidate. I urged her to get some feedback.

It was the content of this feedback that led to her high levels of frustration I was witnessing.

The reason she wasn’t selected? She was deemed to be equal to the selected candidate on all but one criterion. Renee did not have the depth of technical background in the key work performed in the unit.

Renee’s language was colourful: “Damn it! I don’t need to know how to do the work — I need to know how to lead the people who will do the work, and I am damn good at that! The technical knowledge just gets in the way! Don’t they get that?”

Someone with less leadership experience, a history of less loyalty and commitment from the people he led, but someone who had come through the technical ranks in that field had been awarded the role.

Bias in selections

It has long been recognised that bias in recruitment practices is a key reason men are disproportionally appointed to leadership roles. Selections are plagued by the unconscious bias towards white, middle-aged male candidates who are unconsciously believed to be more capable and perform better in leadership roles. This is not news.

This bias gets further entrenched by a natural tendency for humans to trust and prefer to have around them people who are similar to them. Because the recruitment of leadership roles is predominantly led by white, middle-aged men there is a tendency for like to recruit like and the cycle continues. Although processes are being put in place to counteract them, the whispered stories in many agencies will confirm these biases are alive and well.

When it comes to leadership recruitment, and especially the increased recruitment of female leaders, I don’t think these well-recognised biases are the whole story. Another factor is in play. Another bias that occurs in the recruitment of our leaders — the one Renee came up against — is the bias of expecting leaders to do the wrong apprenticeship.

“The wrong apprenticeship is the expectation that leaders be subject matter and operational experts …”

The wrong apprenticeship is the expectation that leaders be subject matter and operational experts in the technical aspects of the teams they lead. The wrong apprenticeship bias says, for example, that if you want to lead a team of social workers then it is required that you have a background in social work, or if you want to lead an infrastructure project you need to have an engineering background. While it is true there are some areas in which it would be advantageous to have good knowledge of the background discipline in order to understand the challenges faced this card is overplayed in leadership recruitment, and the level of knowledge needed is overestimated.

Leadership is a complex technical skill in and of itself. There are numerous theories on what makes a good leader, yet the consensus is clear: like all areas of expertise, it is something that requires commitment, dedication and focus to learn. Some people start with natural skill in areas important to leadership, which they finesse. Skills such as strategic and long-term ethical thinking, interpersonal connection making, inspiring and bringing out the best in others, self regulation, higher order negotiation, a learning mindset, balanced processing and goal focused behaviour. Others learn and hone these skills through enhanced effort. But in all situations being an expert in another area does not automatically make an individual an expert in the skills of leadership.

Yet again and again the recruitment of leaders hinges on being a subject matter expert in an area other than leadership.

Technical expertise is a barrier

The belief that technical expertise is required for someone to move into a leadership role is a deeply held belief, especially in merit-based selections. People who have “done their time” and come up through the technical ranks reinforce this belief. They argue they deserve to be more favourably viewed for leadership roles in their area than “outsiders” and that their technical skills are an essential rather than desired selection criterion.

As long as leadership is seen as a secondary skill to technical expertise leadership in the public sector is doomed to mediocrity. As Renee pointed out: expertise in the technical area of those you lead can be, and often is, a barrier to good leadership.

These barriers come out in several ways. Leaders with strong technical expertise are prone to problems of micromanaging, limited creative and innovative thinking, functional fixedness, narrow definitions of success and a continual struggle to stay out of the comfort zone of working at the operational level. When leaders know how to do something, and they are the boss, it is hard to allow others to do it in a different way.

In addition, technical strengths see managers focus on the problems rather than the possibilities. Leaders without technical backgrounds are not hindered by these barriers and can focus on the task of facilitating the best from the people they lead. In fact, research has shown that followers actually ask for less help from subject matter experts unless that expert is also good at engendering trust — and trust building is a key skill of leadership.

The argument is often made that team members will not respect a leader who is not a subject matter expert. This is lazy, short-cut thinking — respect doesn’t work that way.  People do not give leaders respect automatically. Respect comes from interactions that are characterised by trust, honesty and self-respect. These are elements that go to the heart of leadership and are the things that it is key to assess in leadership selections.

The tendency can also be there for leaders with technical expertise to feel they can rest on their expertise with less need to do the work to gain deep respect from those they lead.

A greater impact on women leaders

The wrong apprenticeship impacts the recruitment of women leaders more than male leaders. Careers interspersed with periods of family care taking women out of the workforce and engaging in greater lengths of part-time work mean that women are not as mobile as male workers. This limits the exposure they have of different fields and disciplines. Women find a manager sympathetic to their needs and stick with them. They then feel higher levels of loyalty because of the leave and periods of part time work they have been able to negotiate.

Women also hold themselves to a higher expertise bar than men. As a study by Hewlett Packard found, women don’t apply for roles unless they feel they have 100% of the required skills. Male candidates typically take a different perspective and will try their luck when they feel they are getting close to having the required skill set. This means that when technical expertise is a criterion for the role women are less likely to explore leadership opportunities outside their area of expertise and male applicants will apply even though their leadership skills are not there.

“These factors come together to see women limit their leadership aspirations to narrow fields.”

These factors come together to see women limit their leadership aspirations to narrow fields. If the field they are narrowed to is one where few leadership opportunities arise they can become stuck. On top of this when women do apply for leadership roles outside of their technical background the wrong apprenticeship bias along with the other selection biases come into play and they can feel unfairly dealt with in selection processes — just like Renee. Frustration with an unfair system can see them judge the effort to apply as too great so they self-select out long before a panel has the chance to assess them.

The diversity in leadership that women leaders can bring is something that our agencies need. The homogenous group think of a largely male dominated leadership team stifles creativity, undermines holistic problem solving and narrows the uptake of new and novel ideas. In addition, recent research from LaTrobe University revealed that having women on boards led to economic benefits for the organisation, so there is an economic imperative not just a social justice argument for more female leaders.

Social media is demanding change and the reputations of many leadership teams are suffering from the heightened social focus people are giving to the issue of diversity in general and gender balance in particular.

This is to say nothing of the opportunity loss that occurs when less accomplished leaders who are technical experts leaders lead people. Or the lack of motivation, commitment and engagement followers feel when they are poorly led.

What can be done?

A couple of adjustments to public sector recruitment would enhance the selection of leaders with strong skills in leadership. The first is for managers to seriously question inclusion of criterion about technical expertise in their selection criteria. Recruiting managers need to assess the level of expertise that is already present in the team and consciously decide if additional expertise is really needed or if the expertise that is already there can be better utilised. As a minimum managers could make technical expertise a desirable rather than an essential criterion.

Let’s also get more fine grain on the evidence required in criteria used to assess leadership. Too often selection panels make decisions based on vague notions of leadership and definitions that can be vastly different between each member of the panel. A common understanding of the specific leadership skills required in the role on offer is needed among panel members. It is easier to assess technical skill than it is to judge evidence of leadership, which leads panels to favour technical evidence. A conversation among the selection panel members on the evidence they want to see from candidates to demonstrate leadership will make it easier to assess. The danger is that moves to simplify application processes (i.e. one-page applications) will compound this lack of clarity.

Finally, it needs to be a legitimate career pathway for individuals to choose to remain subject matter experts without having to move into leadership roles to advance their careers. Additional, creative and valued ways to reward individuals who want to dive deeply into their field need to be found. Ideas such as 20% time where experts can dedicate one day a week to their expertise, scholarships for further study, pay regimes that recognise expert contribution in a way that equals leadership pay scales and specific recognition avenues, beyond pay, for expertise. Then support experts with professional leaders who ensure technical experts are free to give and be their best.

What can aspiring leaders do?

The continued story of Renee illustrates a couple of options applicants have. After coming up against the bias of the wrong apprenticeship on a number of occasions Renee considered a couple of options. She knew that her leadership style was good for those she led and without “big noting” herself she wanted people to benefit from her leadership.

In the next role she considered Renee decided to address the wrong apprenticeship bias head on. Prior to applying she met with the director of the role and spoke openly about her lack of technical expertise in the area. She strongly asserted that if they really wanted someone with the technical skills that they should not consider her. She opened a conversation about the “wrong apprenticeship” bias and highlighted her track record as a leader. The feedback she received led her to believe the organisation was not mature enough yet to think outside the need for leaders with technical expertise and she decided not to apply.

“The wrong apprenticeship bias costs leadership greatly.”

Renee also considered stepping sideways or backwards, and starting a new apprenticeship in an area that offered more leadership opportunities. In the end she decided to step out of fighting against the bias and has started her own small business and the public sector has lost a talented leader.

The wrong apprenticeship bias costs leadership greatly. The public sector needs to build leadership capability that can be deployed across the whole sector, wherever it is needed. If leaders are pinned down by their technical expertise they are less mobile, less flexible and less available to assist where and when needed.

The public sector needs to stop expecting leaders to be technical experts and start expecting them to be leadership experts. Let’s expect public sector leaders to do a deep apprenticeship in leadership and this will go a long way to bridging the leadership gender gap and creating a truly flourishing public sector.

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4 years ago

No I disagree. There is a much greater need for experts in the public sector due to the need for sensible policy advice. The quality of too many agencies has declined because of a trend in the direction advocated in this article – towards generalists. Of course we should expect the secretary of a department to have good leadership skills, but he or she also needs to have relevant expertise or he or she will flounder. Public policy is quite different to running a normal business. Just as we would expect that most employees in a consulting firm, or law firm etc are experts, so too should they be in the public sector. I have observed a very sad decline in expertise in the public sector which is partly behind the poor policies we often observe. If Renee thinks she should be promoted just on leadership then she is mistaken and should spend time building up expertise.

4 years ago

Wow, I’m a woman and I find this article deeply condescending. Don’t have the necessary skills? Lacking in some area? Just call it discrimination!

In many roles, yes, management and leadership skills are important. In my experience working however, it is those with deep technical AND leadership knowledge that are best able to navigate the challenges of leading.

Nowadays with data and technology becoming all the rage in government, technical knowledge is becoming more and more critical, and I don’t find this attitude from women about how not having that technical knowledge constitutes “bias” very helpful – and its an insult to those who study biases and irrational decision making. There’s nothing irrational about wanting or even preferring someone with technical ability.

Here’s some more context: I was at a conference last year that had an app. Many of the readers of this website will probably recognize which conference it was. There was a session on big data and immediately women started commenting things like “Big data: BIG BOYS TOYS?!” like it was some kind of crazy conspiracy theory. The rest of the women went “We need to ENCOURAGE young girls to get involved in data!!”

For someone like me, who is a woman who has taken the time and effort to learn coding languages and statistics on the job, I found that attitude deeply disturbing and embarrassing. There are numerous online resources for anyone to learn anything, including big data. I did not have to submit a semen sample to Codecademy when I started learning SQL. In fact, if anything I have received discounts to learn coding just because of my gender.

This whole thing around “encouraging” is also deeply offensive. It seems like more and more we have this cadre of women who have made a living “encouraging” other women to do things. The “cheerleader” class, profiting off the recent focus on gender inequality who perform “encouragement” functions without actually doing anything themselves. No, *other* women have to do the heavy lifting. I never thought that the end of men telling women what to do just meant that women would be telling other women what to do.

I deeply sympathize with women who have suffered as a result of irrational biases and old-fashioned values against women. However, this is not one of those cases. In fact, to deny the importance of knowledge, experience, and technical capability when government and policy is becoming more and more complex and to suggest that those who value those traits are engaging in irrational bias just makes women look bad.

Steve Rose
Steve Rose
4 years ago

In the APS, the careers of technical experts deadend at relatively low levels, achieved by the early thirties. If they want to feel like they are progressing, they have to either become “leaders”, or leave the APS. Provide better career progression paths, and they won’t be candidates for many of these generalist roles.
I have worked for companies which value technical SMEs – and are trying to achieve this. While I don’t have any actually statistics, it seems to me those companies had more women in senior roles.

Mark Duffett
Mark Duffett
4 years ago

I agree with the general thrust of Sara and Paul’s criticism. ‘Leaders without technical backgrounds can focus on possibilities rather than problems’ is particularly egregious; technical knowledge is often needed to even know what the possibilities are. However, one aspect of Street’s article I applaud is the call for career pathways that don’t necessarily lead to leadership roles, but rather enable continued advancement within technical fields. “It is easier to assess technical skill than it is to judge evidence of
leadership, which leads panels to favour technical evidence” is also probably a fair call.

Geoff Edwards
Geoff Edwards
4 years ago

Katherine Street, A very one-sided article. I endorse the four comments above. Yes, no doubt there are many occasions when people like Renee who would have made better managers in that position are overlooked in favour of lesser candidates. But consider what will happen if your policy is applied repeatedly, and applied to several levels in the hierarchy. There are severe consequences for public policy. One is that the technical expertise of the department can be hollowed out, dumbed down, its role as the custodian of excellence in that field lost – perhaps forever. We want the top technical experts available supervising our construction contracts, guiding aircraft in the skies, ensuring that mines are rehabilitated, controlling weeds in our parks, preventing our departments from being robbed by smart operators in the private sector.

A second consequence is that passion for that field can be lost. For example, few people understand the catastrophe facing our natural landscapes through invasion of pest plants, animals and fungi other than those trained in science. For another topical example, our entire policy leadership in Canberra seems not to understand the the depth of the climate emergency facing Australia and humankind.

A third related consequence is that if a department’s leaders lack technical expertise in their portfolio disciplines, they are much more likely to be passive conduits downwards for what the political level says ought to be done, rather than passionate advocates upwards for what the evidence and the real experts say ought to be done. Trust me, this precisely is happening now. Leaders are now promulgating the view that public servants are there to carry out the instructions of the government, neglecting entirely the other half of their responsibility which is to generate policy and recommendations upwards from street-level awareness of the problems. Lacking in-depth technical expertise (and high-level analytical skill, which partly depends on technical expertise) within their departments, governments are being led blindfold by lobbyists and the press into disserviceable and knee-jerk policy decisions.

Too often non-expert leaders surrounded by technical experts lack the respect for their subordinates that Renee seems to have and resort to bluster, bullying, invocation of higher authority and the generic economistic worldview that prevails amongst the policy elite.

To portray the challenges facing the public service on account of inadequate training in leadership (well described in your article) in gender terms is skating over some deep-seated challenges for which promoting generalist women is not the solution.

4 years ago

Lets assume that if an organisation have all the generalists or too many of those as leaders (people over skills focus), you will most likely end up with politicians and their parties. Generalists are people person, maybe, but please do not forget that they can guarantee anyone about what they are able to deliver, maybe illogical requests which might look reasonable, and blindly agrees like a salesperson due to the lack of expertise or have some crazy idea. Then hire consultants that cost a bomb, and the consultants who are technical experts and lead them blindly, ultimately, do not deliver either. So what then? Failed projects? Run like a political campaign? Look at the political system. Politicians are deemed to be people person or leader, they are not the best, most are generalists when forming the cabinet, most talk but not walk the talk or change their election agenda when its time to execute, they change leader in the party like changing diapers, isn’t it?

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