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Breaking bad talent barriers

How can companies successfully recruit from under-represented groups?
March 2023

At a glance

  • Recruiting from under-represented groups is a hugely positive and ongoing development that requires leaders to be thoughtful and deliberate.
  • Across the talent market, there is no shortage of desire to attract under-represented groups but as the data attests, turning aspirations into reality is anything but straightforward.
  • There are some clear and practical steps that leaders can take to make their organisations more diverse and inclusive. These include setting the right tone from the top, taking care over the interview panel and job spec, and deploying a tailored approach to high profile targets.

As women working in tech, you kind of get used to being in the minority — just look at the numbers. Women make up just 26% of the UK’s tech workforce, despite an abundance of campaigns, media blitzes and events which have sought to move the needle.

And of course, it’s not just about gender.

In London, for example, 13% of the city’s workforce is black but only 3% of this community work in the tech industry.

This means that companies seeking greater diversity are targeting small population segments. Just imagine being a black Londoner who works in tech; they’ve probably gotten so fed up with being targeted all the time they’ve stopped listening.

But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it — quite the opposite in fact.

In our work across the tech market, we’ve found that there is no shortage of desire to attract under-represented groups. That’s to be expected — rare is the business leader who doesn’t recognise the value of different perspectives and avoiding groupthink. But as the data attests, turning aspirations into reality is anything but straightforward.

So what’s to be done?

At Spencer Stuart, we’ve found that companies need to be careful. Don’t rush. Consider who to target and how to best appeal to these under-represented groups. We believe that starting with the ‘5 Ws’ can help companies get their story straight before engaging the market.

  • Who are the under-represented groups you want to join your organisation?
  • Why do you want to attract these groups?
  • When do you want them to join — is there a specific date or event you’re targeting?
  • Where in your organisation do you want to introduce or increase these under-represented talents?
  • What are you doing to attract and retain these groups?

It’s also important to remember that there are currently four generations in the workforce — baby boomers, generation x, millennials and generation z — all of which have shifting points of view and expectations. How employers market themselves to these groups cannot be one size fits all. To be successful, there needs to be compelling nuance to win people’s attention and attract the talent they seek.

Statistics show that diverse teams have better commercial outcomes — companies with strong gender and ethnic diversity are 15% and 35% respectively more likely to outperform their competitors. It also just makes good sense for your business to understand your customers by having people at all levels who come from the very groups being targeted.

You might think that with everything else going on — Ukraine, the cost of living, prime ministerial churn — Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) might be in danger of falling by the wayside. But actually, the opposite is true.

We are seeing increased demand for accountability by the public, investors and shareholders, all driven by issues ranging from LGBQT+ rights to climate change to wider social justice. The pandemic, too, has played a part by spotlighting unwelcome disparities — when Covid-19 began to cast its long shadow, women were 1.8 times more likely than men to lose their jobs.

Another factor has been the increasing volume of legislative, regulatory and disclosure requirements. In the UK, for example, there is now a mandatory reporting requirement on the gender pay gap for companies with more than 250 employees.

As a result of these changes, publicly traded companies have been more eager to opine on events and developments. Their increased willingness to augment the chorus of voices in the public arena has helped propel the ongoing impetus behind DEI in the western world, which has never been stronger in my lifetime.

The task, or rather mission, of recruiting from under-represented groups is no overnight fad. Moreover, it's actually a hugely positive and ongoing development that yes, requires leaders to be thoughtful and deliberate, but will also carve open a wide range of important societal benefits.

I’ve worked in the tech industry for over a decade and diversity has long been a fixture in the discourse. For example, neurodiversity is particularly prized and organisations have specifically sought to ensure its presence amongst coders and other systems thinkers. To be honest, though, it’s easy to feel deflated at how good intentions have failed to translate into greater and more tangible progress.

But it need not be insurmountable. The more positive news is there are some clear and practical steps that employers can take.

1. Set the tone from the top

Any DEI transformation must be intentional and led by the CEO. They need to design a culture of inclusiveness in order to drive better problem solving and innovations. They also need to create cross functional action learning teams to embed diversity not only in ethnic and gender balance, but also across functional disciplines. This means they need to make DEI a continuous experience, recognising that without a CEO who is personally leading from the front, no one will feel safe sticking their necks out. And if the status quo isn’t diverse and inclusive? Acknowledge they will seek to do better.

2. Take care over the interview panel

Employers should make sure it contains the under-represented group(s) they want to attract, and also consider potential allies who could be included. They also need to be ready to make trade-offs, agree their narrative in advance and ensure that all interviewers know about the organisation’s DEI efforts and why it is important. If just one person on the panel doesn’t get it, then that risks derailing the whole process.

3. Stay in sync with the recruitment partner

We know that as consultants at Spencer Stuart, we would say this, but the recruitment partner also has a big role to play. Employers need to think about the team they decide to work with and how they represent them in the market. A close partnership is a pre-requisite — employers need to understand how they are positioned against their competitors and what they can do to attract those elusive target groups.

4. Set out clear KPIs

To this end, KPIs need to clearly stated and agreed. There also needs to be a section on DEI in the recruitment brief; it’s important to have a shared ambition, initiatives and journey.

5. Be specific on the job spec

Time should also be taken over the job spec as it really does influence the likelihood of under-represented groups responding — or not. Some key words to watch stand out, such as proven, degree, graduate, and a specific number of years of experience. Employers can also use tools, such as Textio, to identify language that may deter under-represented groups from applying to the role.

6. Go the extra mile on talent spotting

Employers must seek to remove unconscious biases and avoid looking in the same old places for talent. Don’t just rely on job boards but also look at competitors and similar sectors and roles, as well as thinking about how to engage groups like UKBlackTech and Women in Tech directly. They also need to understand how certain people may react to the process and to offers, while also ensuring that they don’t overlook internal talent. Gartner research shows that organisations with sustainable DEI initiatives demonstrate a 20% increase in inclusion, which corresponds to greater on-the-job effort and intent to stay, as well as high employee performance.

This internal point is important. Employers need to have a DEI function and strategy they can point to, as well as a website that broadcasts the relevant communications and information about the under-represented groups they want to attract — aligning back to the ‘5 Ws’. Funds should also be made available so that employees from these groups can create community, share best practices and have a positive impact on the organisation.

7. Have a tailored approach for high profile targets

And finally, when employers are looking for a target who enjoys a high profile, it is important not to rely on generic techniques. It is far better — and more impactful — to deploy a more nuanced, tailored approach that reflects the visibility of the target in question. A firm like Spencer Stuart, for example, has broad networks and we can appeal to people directly and through our extended network to help attract their attention.

Technology companies are dealing with a market in permanent flux. Digital advances come and go, new innovations uproot established norms and change is ever-present. This means they require a diversity of perspectives, skills and traits at decision-making tables, as well as an ability to leverage them for the organisation’s benefit — which is inclusion is all about.

So yes, the sheer pace of technological advances will always create a market on the move but it’s about the people, too. It’s long past time that businesses become better representative of the society they serve.

DEI is the future — let’s get to work.


The author would like to thank Julia Westland and her Spencer Stuart colleagues, Janissa Jacobs, Shami Iqbal, Monisha Banerjee, Veena Marr, Mansur Khawar, Alastair Rolfe and Jason Takavarasha for their valuable contributions to this article.

Click here to learn more about how Spencer Stuart prioritises Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.