Talent is blind - promoting female and BME employees

1 July 2016

There is evidence that companies stand to make more money when they have a workforce that reflects their customer base – but what action is taken to ensure that happens? Greg Noone talks to Ann Pickering, human resources director at O2, about her campaign to promote female and BME employees to senior positions across the company.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its inquiry into gender equality across the boardrooms of FTSE 350-listed companies on 23 March 2016. The statistics made for grim reading. Despite the fact that more than a quarter of senior executives in the UK's 100 largest companies are female, fewer than half of the firms surveyed by the EHRC had increased the number of women on their governing boards between 2012 and 2014. A third of companies reported relying on the personal networks of existing - and predominantly male - board members to recruit new candidates. In the same period, 46% of firms saw the number of women on their governing boards fall or remain static.

The inquiry did discover some green shoots. More search firms were instructed to widen their networks to capture more diverse candidates, and a few businesses had begun to offer "specific programmes to women to develop their leadership potential", in imitation of companies such as O2. Under the guidance of its human resources director Ann Pickering, the telecommunication giant's 'Women in Leadership' initiative has begun to yield tangible results in gender equality across all levels hitherto lacking in many of its competitors.

"We have three women on the board at O2, which is pretty unusual," says Pickering. "[There's] me, from Liverpool; we've got a Spanish-speaking executive; and our marketing director, who's American. We've got a good mix. If you look at the overall gender split in the company, 39.5% are female."

Moreover, of a total workforce of around 7,500 people, four in ten are under the age of 30. O2's HR director wants to leverage the dynamic between the generations of employees that brought today's mobile technology to market and those born using it in order to produce a new type of British company.

Speaking out

Ann Pickering's path to the board of O2 - she has previously described her appointment in 2008 as the proudest moment in her career - began in the food aisles of Marks & Spencer, where the human resources graduate programme complemented job interview training and appraisal meetings with long periods of stacking shelves.

It was at the IT firm Xansa, however, where she fully became aware of the potential good that could be done if she climbed the corporate ladder.

"One of the reasons was that the CEO at the time was female," she says, recalling a period when it was rare to encounter women working in IT. "I had a brilliant role model and she, like me, was northern, and that did make a difference. I spoke funny, and probably still do - I'm a Scouser. Because I became a bit like her business-manager bag carrier, she took me under her wing."

"She" is Dame Hilary Cropper, who is now known as one of the pioneers of British information technology. Together with Xansa's founder, Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley - so nicknamed because that's how she signed off her letters to male customers, the better to persuade them to make orders - Cropper transformed the company into one of the UK's preeminent technology firms. Pickering has styled herself as a vocal proponent of equality in the workplace, but it was only when she attended Cropper's memorial service in 2004, and saw the many talented female executives in attendance, that she fully realised the impact of her mentor's work.

"She was someone who taught me the importance of courage and confidence," says Pickering. "And by that I mean having the courage to be yourself in what was then very much a man's world. I think one of the [other] things she taught me, which I hope I have brought into O2, is the value of encouraging what we now know as social mobility. It wasn't known as that back then."

Ensuring that this could happen for candidates applying for lower and mid-level vacancies at O2 meant changes had to be made in the interview process. "When I'm recruiting for what we call our 'roaming careers' - so that might be apprentices, graduates, or interns - we do blind interviewing," Pickering says. "We don't even know what university someone went to, which school they attended, or even what gender they are. That's to prevent any kinds of unconscious biases that we might encounter."

Although the senior leadership team at O2 has undergone unconscious bias training since Pickering's appointment, she can't always rely on it when recruiting across all levels of the company. Sometimes, she has to use executive search firms, in which case she'll insist on a gender-balanced shortlist of candidates.

"We'll choose the best person," affirms Pickering, in a tone more like a warning than if she were relating a point of pride. "I'm not a great fan of quotas, but I think for me, creating a level playing field is really important."

People over paper

One principle Pickering has championed throughout her tenure at O2 has been to judge potential applicants on qualities that can't be summarised on a one-page CV. The enduring search for certified qualifications within most recruitment drives, over and above relevant personal experience, is something that she believes has whittled away at the confidence of many potentially brilliant candidates. And that process, Pickering believes, begins in high school.

"I'm not apportioning blame anywhere here, but when I go out and speak at schools about the world of work and technology, I can see that we're doing the next generation a disservice," she says. "I went to a boy's school in Manchester called Burnage Academy to talk to pupils about O2. These are bright, smart kids, and I said to them, 'OK, how many of you consider yourself to be digitally skilled?' And probably three of these kids put their hand up. So, I said, 'OK, how many of you have been on social media this morning?' Everyone put their hand up. I said, 'You have digital skills.'

"And that's what's missing. I think it's not just down to the schools - they do a great job - but it is down to people like me and colleagues in other businesses to go out and start telling the story about what a career in technology actually means. I genuinely believe that young people have got skills in abundance, but they don't realise that or know how to tell their own stories."

This lack of confidence extends to university and beyond. During one visit to a job centre in east London, Pickering met a number of unemployed graduates of Asian origin who, for cultural reasons, had all lived at home while attending university. Each individual, Pickering observed, had been capable of having attended a Russell Group university, but of course they hadn't, and the recruiters had passed them by.

One individual's story remains fixed in Pickering's mind. "This man was very down in the dumps," she recalls. "He said, 'I've not done well and I'm disappointed in myself.' This was a young man who'd left university and set up a small company organising Asian weddings and employed three people. He did that successfully for three years. The only reason he went out of business is because a bigger fish came along and organised the weddings and the food.

"He saw himself as a failure. What I saw was an entrepreneur who'd employed three people for three years. That's what I mean about how we've got to help our young people tell their story. I thought he was bloody marvellous."

Flexible working

Hence the blind interviewing and Pickering's unrelenting campaign against bias in all levels of recruitment. Yet, when it comes to wooing women for senior positions from outside of O2, the company's HR director has chosen to cut along the grain.

"I'm going to give a generalisation here, so forgive me," she prefaces. "Quite often, a woman has certain responsibilities that tend to fall more towards them than to men. Often these revolve around childcare, and the reason I say that is because recruiting a senior woman from another organisation is quite hard because, typically, they've got their own network and everything around them is already working well."

By the time they're headhunted by Pickering, many of these senior female executives have built a flexible working structure that balances a vibrant career with a stable family life. Any attempt to attract them to a similar or more senior role at O2 has to take that into consideration.

"It takes a lot longer to recruit senior women, because you have to winkle them out of that arrangement," says Pickering. "So one of the things I've done over time is identified that talent and invited them to our offices just to have a chat: 'Come in and see us and tell us what you do.' By doing that over a long period of time, I've recruited one or two women who I met before I even had a job [available], but by the time that I had a role that was suitable, I rang them up. By then, they knew a bit more about our culture and how we support people."

While Pickering is unquestionably a practical advocate of equal employment practices - in an email sent after this interview, she cites McKinsey & Company's finding that every 10% increase in gender diversity in the senior levels of a company results in a 3.5% rise in financial performance - there is a sense that she also defines herself by them. At one point, when she refers to herself as "a girl from Liverpool - one of six kids - from a working class background", it isn't hard to imagine that Pickering wants to atomise her own experiences for the hundreds of women O2 will recruit over the next few years.

This is just as well, given the engrained attitudes towards gender roles that persist throughout the tech industries. Pickering says: "47% of the 11-18 year-olds we surveyed think the tech sector is more suitable for men, and it's important for the media to be looking at this." Then there was the time when a recruitment consultant objected to her order for gender-blind recruitment lists because they would "compromise on quality".

Yet there's no hint in our conversation that Pickering has ever been deterred in her mission. "Talent is blind to gender, to ethnicity, to sexuality, to socio-economic background," she says. "At O2, we have 25 million customers and it's vital that the talent I manage reflects that customer base. So, it makes commercial sense and any business which ignores that will ignore it at its peril."

"Talent is blind to gender, to ethnicity, to sexuality, to socio-economic background.” - Ann Pickering HR Director, O2.
McKinsey & Company found that a 10% increase in gender diversity at senior levels of a company results in a 3.5% rise in financial performance.