Collaborations between CBS and recruitment companies ensure gender diversity in management and boards

Denmark has some of the highest employment and education rates for women worldwide. Nevertheless, women are still a minority in top management and leadership positions within Danish firms. A Code of Conduct for Diversity in Recruitment for management and board positions helps to both highlight and promote equal opportunities.


Kvinder i bestyrelse (artikel billede)

In collaboration with the Ministry for Gender Equality and a steering group with members from leading Danish search and recruitment firms, Copenhagen Business School (CBS) developed, and is currently administering, the ”Voluntary Code of Conduct for Diversity in Recruitment”. This code is aimed at search and recruiting firms to ensure greater diversity in their work with finding and qualifying candidates for top-level vacancies in Danish private and public companies.

The collaboration also affords CBS researchers the opportunity to follow the effects of such a code of conduct. We asked Assistant Professor Kai Inga Liehr Storm from the Department of Operations Management to talk about the project and to share her insights on how diversity and inclusion are moving forward in Danish companies.

What is the project about, and why did it start?

Certain positions, in particular in the higher management echelons or on company boards are often filled with the help of so-called search and recruitment firms. These are service providers who help their clients find and recruit candidates for such high-level positions. This also means that search firms are very uniquely positioned and of particular interest, when we look at diversity in top management. So, this is what the project is about: Learning alongside the firms that are so often involved in executive and board-level recruitment.

The Code of Conduct was initiated back in 2018, when the Ministry of Equal Opportunities entered into a collaboration with a number of leading search and recruitment firms to increase diversity in management and boards across the Danish business community. At CBS, we were invited to handle the reporting of data and to monitor the development of diversity in recruitment.

All recruitment companies can access the Code of Conduct’s eight principles for greater diversity in recruitment for management and boards. One of the central principles is ensuring that at least 33 per cent of the potential candidates presented to clients are women. The recruitment firms also commit to increasing awareness among their employees of the unconscious biases that may affect their choice of candidates. At the same time, they agree to report available data on the developments in the recruitment process to CBS, who in turn will be able to monitor the effects.

I should also mention that this is a voluntary code of conduct – the search and recruitment firms are not required to join. That said, we are obviously very happy that this project has received much support and interest from the firms, and that in the last few years, many have decided to join.

Why do so many Danish companies still struggle with gender diversity?

It is complicated. When I conduct interviews for this project, I hear of many different reasons. In some industries, particularly when they are quite tech- or engineering-heavy, I often hear of pipeline problems: Women have a harder time making it into those higher-level management positions that can act as a springboard for landing a top-level position. Another reason I sometimes come across is risk-aversion: In executive and board positions much is at stake. If you make a mistake, for example as a CEO or CTO, it can play out very publicly and become very harmful to the company. In such a sensitive context, it is deeply human to gravitate towards the known rather than the unknown, for example when it comes to hiring a new top-executive.

The difficulty lies in challenging and changing what lies behind such thinking, which can often be traced back to restrictive social norms and yes, unconscious and implicit biases that have programmed us to an exclusive idea of what a ‘perfect’ leader is. Again, this is not out of malice, it is simply human behaviour. That said, what I find encouraging is the strong interest shown by search and recruiting firms and their clients in doing something about it and thus become more inclusive.

Where are we in terms of increased diversity?

Our data from the last couple of years documents a marked difference in how search and recruitment firms – as well their clients – engage with diversity in comparison to when we started this project. Today, we see that diverse candidate lists are increasingly something clients expect, and for the search firms, it is becoming a hallmark of ‘good’ service. Importantly, this has not slowed down during the pandemic, on the contrary. This shows that there is a momentum in terms of diversity right now, which is very encouraging.

However, it is also very important that we keep this up, and that we do not merely rest on our laurels. We cannot sit back in the belief that we have ‘fixed’ it. Because we have not. There is still a lot to be done. Both in terms of achieving gender equality, but also in talking about diversity in a broader sense.

What is the main reason why companies should welcome diversity in management and boards?

Because there simply is no good reason not to. Imagine that you are given a very complicated problem to solve. You are allowed to ask the advice of five people. Would you ask five people from the same town, of the same age, with the same training, the same point of view? Or would you also want to hear what someone with a different background had to say?

Why does the project only focus on women?

‘Diversity’ is a tricky thing to account for. In Denmark, it is illegal for companies to record things such as employees’ sexuality, health status or religion. For a very good reason. Which leaves gender as a diversity factor that we can both count and track, and so,  it became a natural point of departure for the project.

What gives me great hope is that we are seeing a movement towards a broader understanding of diversity, away from just gender. In many of the interviews I conducted, I see that the focus on securing more women candidates has generated interest in other diversity aspects, for instance, age, nationality or professional background.

Professor Sara Louise Muhr at the Department of Organization, Associate Professor Aleksandra Gregorič at the Department of Strategy and Innovation, and Assistant Professor Kai Inga Liehr Storm at the Department of Operations Management are responsible for the study.

Read more about the Code of Conduct for Diversity in Recruitment for management and boards and how you can register your company here.

The page was last edited by: Sekretariat for Ledelse og Kommunikation // 07/11/2023