Movers and Shakers – How has the pandemic affected women?

The impact of pandemic on candidates and appointees 

In the midst of global pandemic management, it’s easy to lose sight of smaller changes in behaviour and the bigger impact this might have in years to come. As there has been widespread media coverage of whether women are bearing a larger brunt of managing the disruption to home and family life, we were interested in whether this had affected the ratio of women applying for new roles in 2020. 

A particular point we noted was that in Non-Executive markets, so often a role done in addition to an executive career, the proportion of women applicants had dropped by 12%. For full time executive roles, the reduction was less severe but still stood at -4%. Of course, there are a number of reasons why overall numbers may change – there has been less movement in the market overall as some roles have been on hold as attention diverted to front line services; some have not wanted to leave a role or join a new organisation during this period; and others are committed to seeing this period through before moving on.  However, men would be equally affected, and ratios should remain relatively constant.

The proportion of women applying for roles has reduced across 2020​ 

Managing in excess of 500 assignments each year gives us a wealth of data from which to identify trends. In 2019, women accounted for 36% of applicants across all roles; in 2020, this has dropped to 32% (though appointed women still make up over 50%). As highlighted above, this is further exacerbated at Non-Executive level where the proportion of women has dropped from 44% to 32%. Such statistically significant points to more of women’s time, energy or mind space taken up with additional caring responsibilities, be that home schooling or the care of more vulnerable adults.        

This data is also backed up by comments we have frequently heard from women who we have pro-actively approached; many feel they do not have the time and cannot compromise their other responsibilities, or they may be the one who is stepping back to allow a partner to step up or be less impacted by the disruption.

Though the proportion converting to being placed remains as high 

The good news is that GS is converting a high proportion of women applicants to placements. Though women made up only 32% of all applicants, 51% of all successful candidates were women. For Executive women, this rose to 54%, while for Non-Executives, this was 47%. While this reflects a very high quality field, this level of successful appointments also reflects the need to capably support women throughout the process and look to be more creative and agile with process where possible. Building a supportive relationship at the outset, managing concerns and building trust is essential to our executive search process.

Re-thinking process creatively to encourage greater inclusivity 

One place to start can be the application process itself, which can present the most immediate hurdle in the time it can take to complete an application and navigate an often lengthy process. We have been testing a range of new ideas to assess whether they can save time and add value to candidate insight. For example, we have been trialling video personal statements rather than written statements to see if this creates a more efficient candidate experience while offering a better means by which to assess candidates against essential criteria. 

To others, we have recommended trialling the use of a summary ‘expression of interest’ which formally records candidate interest but does not require a full application to a strict closing date. Elsewhere, we have forgone the use of traditional CV’s which can be very time consuming to develop and, instead, use more behavioural online competency questions. We feel all of the above might offer a more inclusive process to attract a more diverse candidate field.

Ethnically diverse candidates now make up a larger proportion of all applicants, though in 2020, this growth has come from men​ 

What about ethnically diverse candidates and have we seen similar patterns in these groups? Women from ethnic communities make up around 7% of all applicants and this number proportion is in line with 2020. Men from ethnic communities, meanwhile, have grown at a faster rate making up 16% of all applicants vs 12% in 2019. While it is very encouraging that ethnically diverse applicants total 22%, the static proportion of women is a greater cause for concern and, again, points to a lack of capacity to consider a new role during the current pandemic.         

Another consistent trend is the success of women in terms of appointees. While 7% of applicants are ethnically diverse, this rises to 8% in terms of appointees, suggesting we are finding a very capable field. The priority is to build this talent pipeline further.

Women are making better use of personal networks 

One area that appears to have been most impacted by the pandemic is the use of personal networks. All groups – women, men, Non Executives and ethnically diverse applicants are citing reduced use of personal referral networks to find out about roles, with numbers often half that of 2019. 

While men appear to have better networks to draw upon, women are making theirs work harder in 2020. Women Non Executives, in particular, have invested more in maintaining their virtual networks and used them to gain information and opportunities. Male Non Executives, meanwhile, perhaps as a result of losing the physical opportunity to meet, have lost the benefit that these networks can bring. 

What is encouraging is that ethnically diverse applicants, like our women Non Executives, are using their networks more effectively with 18% of ethnically diverse applicants citing their compared to 12% of white applicants.

Our role in accelerating diverse talent pipeline development 

GS is focused upon building networks for under-represented groups to help accelerate the benefits networks can bring in raising awareness of opportunities and, as importantly, building confidence and encouragement to apply. 

Our partnerships: the NHS – ‘Insight Programme’; Unify – LeadershipNow!; Government departments such as Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy – Talent Pool; and The Staff College and DfE – upon Programme all aim to identify current and future senior talent and offer personal development opportunities. As management of the pandemic will continue across 2021, our data suggests that being able to identify a breadth of talent and providing ongoing support and engagement will be more important than ever. 

If you would like more information on our data insight or talent pipeline porgrammes, contact Sam Ellis, Director of Strategy & Marketing, at

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