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Tackling aid recruitment's class problem

One of the development industry's first diversity officers, Palladium's Dr. Rosanna Duncan, talks to Devex about how recruitment practices can lead to bias in class, race and gender.

Interns listen to a speech at the United Nations. Dr Rosanna Duncan told Devex that access to internship programs in the sector can be restrictive. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / U.N.

Tackling aid recruitment's class problem was originally published by Devex Development Reporter Molly Anders on August 18, 2017.

LONDON — The irony that the aid sector — which claims to be at the forefront of poverty reduction — is lagging in the push to make hiring practices more inclusive of race, gender, class and disability is not lost on Dr. Rosanna Duncan, Palladium’s new director of diversity and inclusion.

“I think it’s strange that in development we create opportunities to work on poverty, inequality and inclusion, but actually the processes we use to attract staff are not inclusive,” she told Devex at a women’s networking event at BDO headquarters in London. Duncan, who joined Palladium — the global development consulting group — after working on inclusivity issues in construction and engineering, says the development sector is no exception to the diversity failures endemic in both public and private sector recruiting practices.

“We’re piloting different practices now in order to begin asking this question: How do we get to a wider market? When we talk about diversity at Palladium, we also don’t just want to talk about gender or race or disability, we’re also thinking about social class, we’re thinking about how we can make sure we meet the requirements of introverts and extroverts, and making sure they fit into the team dynamic, so we’re looking at it from a much broader perspective,” she said.

The challenge is compounded by many development organizations’ perennial failure to recruit local staff, she said — and while there has been some research on the sector’s diversity at the highest levels of governance, until now there hasn’t been much examining of the sector’s upstream recruiting habits.

In 2013, following a government review of diversity in leadership and skills in the United Kingdom’s social sector, Dame Mary Marsh — the founding director of the Clore Social Leadership Programme, who was tasked with conducting the review — described diversity throughout the sector as “very, very weak.”

“I think it’s true there are too many white, middle-class people going into charities because they know their way around the system,” she said in a 2013 interview with The Independent newspaper following the review. “It’s not been open to all — and it is people from the communities that we are seeking to serve that we should be trying to recruit. We ought to want those communities to be part of our workforce and I think they are under-represented.”

Four years later, Duncan said not much has changed. “We don’t want to be continuing societal inequalities and discriminatory practices that feed into our recruitment,” she said. By moving toward “more competency-based recruitment,” she and Palladium hope to push back not just internally throughout the talent supply chain, but on the wider sector too — from degree requirements, to the unhealthy reliance on unpaid internships and apprenticeships, to more thoughtful mentorship options.

The education bottleneck: Does a master’s degree matter?

For consulting firms like Palladium, one of the biggest challenges to inclusive hiring is the clients, who often impose their own degree requirements on recruitment processes, something Duncan says can be anachronistic among today’s buffet of options for assessing competence. In some cases, she said, it is even thoughtlessly exclusive.

“Part of being an exemplar is finding more innovative ways to recruit people, then pushing back to the clients and saying, ‘You’re looking for this kind of candidate, but actually, in some of the leading consultancies recruitment is now competency based,’” she said.

“If you’ve got a first-class honors degree from Oxford, does that really mean you’re necessarily automatically going to be able to fulfil the competency requirements that we have? No.”

The emphasis on “brick and mortar” top-tier universities is another problem. Even though many top-tier universities are routinely called out for biased admissions, the aid sector continues to encourage discrimination by putting a higher premium on degrees from these and other higher tier institutions, she said.

Finally, Duncan pointed to the near-automatic inclusion of a master’s degree among job requirements in the sector. Palladium has begun questioning the negative impacts of this, she said, pointing to recent internal research at Palladium that “shows no correlation between high degrees and productivity.”

The work is still in the early days, Duncan acknowledged — but Palladium’s Regional Director for Europe, Middle East and Africa Sinéad Magill said during a panel discussion at BDO that the organisation’s internal work challenging the need for master’s has been eye opening.

“Coming from outside the sector, Rosanna has held up a mirror to us and showed us that though we require, generally in the sector, master’s degrees to get in, that in itself is very exclusive to families who can’t necessarily access the funding or the loans to get those degrees,” Magill said.

Asked what Palladium plans to do to change the practice, she said: “We’re looking at trying to recruit people outside of those parameters, like looking at different types of degree programs where people might have access to funding.” She added that Palladium is “approaching graduates from other countries who might represent a broader diversity, and we’re looking at interviewing, assessing and selecting in a way that’s different, that’s purely based on their competence and not just based on their education.”

The elitism of apprenticeships and unpaid internships

Particularly in Washington, D.C., — where the average student debt load in 2015 was $40,885 per student — getting a foothold in a development organization in the earliest stages of your career is increasingly difficult, and in many cases increasingly unpaid.

“How can you do a competitive internship if you don’t have financial support, if your family are not wealthy or you don’t have any way to access those funds?” Duncan asked. “It seems a little bit ironic that you could be working on a poverty-related project, but you’re on a free internship.”

The problem is compounded for many foreign students on a budget, whose visa requirements — the U.K. Tier 4 visa, or the United States F-1 visa, for example — preclude them from taking on part-time work while earning academic credit.

Plan International Chief Executive Officer Tanya Barron agreed with the importance of offering “at least the London living wage” (currently set at 9.75 British pounds per hour, or $12.5) to entry-level employees — but said that charity executives “have to be realistic” about education requirements for apprentices and interns.

“Our apprentices typically come through fairly modest educational background roots, and they absolutely come from groups of the population which are not represented as well as they should be on our staff, but I think we have to be realistic about somebody who’s, you know, left to work a bit early, not had much academic exposure — there will be some jobs that [they] just aren’t going to be able to do and aren’t going to want to do,” she said during the panel discussion.

Plan has seen more success when recruiting candidates for apprenticeships with lower levels of education into “office management or fundraising,” as well as human resources, she said. For “real development managers” on the other hand, Barron said that offering “well-paid internships” to those with a higher level of education has “helped enormously to bring in people with “the academic skills that we do need, but actually may not have the financial confidence or wherewithal to not be paid,” she said.

But Duncan sees problems with this approach. “I don’t agree with that comment at all,” she told Devex. She explained that the public view of apprenticeships often assumes that those competing for them don’t have “the intellectual capacity.”

“We’re almost downgrading it right away by saying that people coming through apprenticeships don’t really have much experience in education — well that’s not true. And I think when you say the word apprenticeship, people think of working class people, and then it automatically downgrades our understanding. We’ve got to stop thinking like that,” she said.

Thoughtful mentorship

An issue that development shares with the private sector, Duncan said, is the problem of “protective channeling,” when employers try to steer their employees away from situations they feel could victimize them, due to the potential for exposure to racial tensions, class discrimination or anticipated challenges with family plans, for example.

“The good intentions were there in [my previous work in the private sector], because [employers] thought, ‘well you’re going to get sexually harassed,’ and in development I’m hearing the same sorts of things, where people are protectively channeling women away from roles they assume they can’t do because they’ve got family requirements or challenges,” she said.

Strong mentorship programmes can help with this, she said. But Duncan pointed to another bottleneck: The way organizations make assumptions about how and by whom employees want to be mentored.

“There must be women role models, but I think we need to see women in a much broader context: You might have a white middle-class woman in an organization, but then you might have a black working-class woman who might not relate to the white middle-class woman; she might relate better to this guy,” she suggested.

The business case for diversity and inclusion remains undeniably strong. A 2015 study conducted by McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile of gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have financial returns that were above their national industry median; and companies in the top quartile of racial/ethnic diversity were 35 percent more likely to. While similar figures focusing on the development sector have yet to emerge, Duncan said their early findings show that taking a holistic — rather than narrow view — of diversity are promising.

“To me, inclusion is more about creating environments where, regardless of whether you’re an introvert, a male, a female or a black introvert or whatever, it’s about how can you create an organization which is inclusive?”