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“If there’s only one woman in your candidate pool, there’s statistically no chance she’ll be hired.”

Read those words again.

As shared in a startling Harvard Business Review article based on robust research, the same principle applies for minority candidates as well. Specifically, the researchers found:

“When there was only one woman or minority candidate in a pool of four finalists, their odds of being hired were statistically zero. But when we created a new status quo among the finalist candidates by adding just one more woman or minority candidate, the decision makers actually considered hiring a woman or minority candidate.”

Of course, having no women or minority candidates in a pool of finalists means that a diverse candidate will not be hired. But Christian schools and organizations—as well as the search firms that assist them—often complain that finding even one diverse finalist for any position often seems daunting.

And yet this research suggests that having only one diverse candidate is, statistically speaking, the same as having zero. As the authors state, “Managers need to know that working to get one woman or minority considered for a position might be futile, because the odds are likely slim if they are the lone woman or nonwhite candidate.”

The Hiring Challenge

This finding highlights the difficulty of hiring diverse candidates in most organizations, even when those organizations have committed to diversifying their staff and leadership teams. Data on Christian school staffing from 2019 shows an overall lack of diversity among Christian school educators. In the dataset from just over 700 U.S. schools, the staff race/ethnicity profile tended to be heavily skewed toward Caucasians/Whites (at the 50th percentile, 3% of staff were African American, 4% Latino/Hispanic, and 82% Caucasian/White).

Additionally, a narrower pathway for the transition of women from the secondary leadership level to the head of school level was evident: of current heads of school at the time of the survey, 56% were male, and 44% female; however, at the next layer of administration (e.g., principals, assistant heads, directors), this ratio was reversed, with 57% of next-tier administrators female and 43% are male (at the 50% percentile).

As Jay Ferguson, Head of School at Grace Community School in Tyler, Texas, and I shared in the same post:

“To address this, school leaders and boards should develop diversity-enhancing strategies within their schools that more closely mirror the body of Christ and their surrounding communities, not only to better reflect God’s Kingdom, but also to help ensure long-term sustainability with an increasingly diverse population. This will require closely examining explicit and implicit assumptions or biases that may be undermining recruitment and hiring of diverse candidates, as well as precluding high-quality leadership from having opportunities for advancement within a given school structure.”

While much could be written about these recommendations, concrete strategies for recruitment of diverse candidates seems to be a good place to begin. Findings from the Harvard Business Review article would suggest that hiring more diverse candidates needs to start all the way back at recruiting and interviewing diverse candidates. In other words, to change the “status quo” in an organization, the “status quo” in the candidate pool also needs to be changed.

To this end, many businesses in corporate America are unlocking the “power of two”—requiring that at least two diverse candidates be interviewed for any job search—in their hiring policies. But is this an idea that could be applied in Christian education?

It turns out at Chattanooga Christian School (CCS) in Tennessee—which is committed to hiring staff to reflect the diversity in the surrounding community—already has this practice place. As HR director Renee Timmerman explains, “I don’t think that we can be diverse unless we have some things in our process that are intentional in terms of bringing diversity. It’s not exactly in a written process, but just making sure that in a final slate of candidates, for example, that we have at least two diverse candidates.”

Why Does It Work?

Certainly, there is nothing “magical” behind using a specific hiring practice. But it is worth asking the question as to why a specific practice—like the “power of two”—works. Timmerman gives expanding one’s networks of contacts as a reason:

“So often in hiring, what you see is ‘I know this person, I think they’d be great at it, I want to have them fill this position.’ There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think when you kind of like peel those layers back, then you find that our natural tendency is to hire people who we’re comfortable with. So ‘they’re like me, they run in the same circles, they have the same experience.’ So it’s about becoming intentional about creating diversity in your final slate of candidates so that you bring other people into that process. Then you’re not relying on your own limited experience to say, ‘this is the spot I have, and this is the person I want to fill this.’”

The authors of the Harvard Business Review article suggest additional reasons: “Why does being the only woman in a pool of finalists matter? For one thing, it highlights how different she is from the norm. And deviating from the norm can be risky for decision makers, as people tend to ostracize people who are different from the group. For women and minorities, having your differences made salient can also lead to inferences of incompetence.”

Regarding the latter, having only one woman in a hiring slate may only compound another research finding, that women are judged differently in the hiring process than men: “Women are often hired and promoted based on past accomplishments, while men may be hired and promoted based on future potential.” This may help explain why women in particular face unique challenges in obtaining the CEO role, even though they aspire to the role at the same rate as their male colleagues.

Promising… But Not Easy

While the “power of two” is a promising practice, that certainly doesn’t mean it will be easy to implement. Again, Christian schools, organizations, and the search firms that assist them often complain that finding even one diverse finalist for any position is challenging. Readers may be thinking, “How can we require that we interview two diverse candidates?”

As mentioned, Chattanooga Christian School is already proving that it can be done. While underscoring that CCS only hires qualified candidates who are a good fit, Timmerman explains that it requires intentionality and new strategies to increase the diversity of the candidate pool. To this end, she shares two specific strategies: “Engaging our diverse employees, or our employees of color who would have connections to other candidates who might be a good fit, is another thing that we’ve tried to do as well. We’ve also connected with some of the churches that have diverse congregations that we might be able to draw candidates from as well.”

Most things that are worthwhile are not easy. This is especially true for changing the status quo in any organization. For those Christian schools that believe hiring staff who reflect the diversity in the surrounding community is important, the “power of two” is worth considering as a strategy for achieving that goal.

Author Lynn Swaner

Dr. Lynn Swaner is the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at ACSI, where she leads initiatives and develops strategies to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Prior to joining ACSI she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. Dr. Swaner serves as a Cardus Senior Fellow and is the lead editor of the books MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, co-author of Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, and editor of the ACSI blog. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.

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