Diversity VIII: Fly to the top

This week we could read in Dutch newspapers that the new CEO of the national airport Schiphol (one of the biggest and busiest airports in the world) will be a man. The reason given is: “At the moment the board consists of two men and two women. We want to maintain that balance.” This reason is ridiculous and I was surprised that the board presented it in this way.

Suppose that they start looking for a suitable candidate and find a good man for the job. As is the norm nowadays, the media and some politicians will ask “Why not a woman?” as if being a woman would make someone more suitable for the job. At that point, the board could say “We already have fifty percent women on the board, so we decided not to use affirmative action for this vacancy, and we simply picked the best candidate regardless of gender.” Nobody could fault them for that. But, by their statements, they deliberately set out to appoint a man, i.e., they used affirmative action in favor of males this time.

In my view, using affirmative action is always wrong, regardless of which gender it favors. For any job, what any company and the whole of society really should want, is that the most qualified person is appointed. Rarely does gender by itself make someone more or less qualified. For top positions, such as being CEO of Schiphol, the pool of suitable candidates tends to be small, due to requirements of experience, network, availability, and willingness to spend one’s whole life at their job. Partly for historic reasons this pool is mostly filled with men, so it is understandable that you will probably end up with a man if you do not specifically let gender weigh in. But who cares if it turns out that the board of Schiphol gets filled with only women? If they are the most suitable for the job, that is the best guarantee for optimal decision making!

Maybe, just maybe, the board of Schiphol tries to be smart and hopes that society will respond in exactly this way to their statements that they will only appoint a man for gender-balance reasons. Because if society predominantly responds with “but gender should not matter, you want to hire the best person for the job,” for the next round of hires they may be able to throw affirmative action out of a plane without a parachute.

If their goal is to ensure that the quality of their board members is the sole selection criterion for the future, making such blunt statements at this stage might be just one of the tactical maneuvers you can expect from a good CEO.

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