Women in Staffing

This month, host Bruce Morton sits down with Ursula Williams, chief operating officer at Staffing Industry Analysts (SIA), to discuss women in leadership in the staffing industry. Ursula highlights key findings from SIA’s recent report on the topic and shares best practices as well as personal experiences on mentorship, engaging men as advocates and the mindset and skill sets that future industry leaders – women and men – will need to be successful in the staffing industry. 

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Bruce Morton: Welcome to Subject to Talent, brought to you by Allegis Global Solutions. Similar to you, we're always trying to learn more. On this podcast, we speak to workforce and talent experts from around the world, every market trends, technology, and our ever-evolving dynamic industry.

Hi. I'm Bruce Morton, the host of Allegis Global Solutions Subject to Talent Podcast. Today, I'm joined by a great friend of mine, Ursula Williams. Ursula is Chief Operating Officer of Staffing Industry Analysts with over 25 years of industry experience.

Ursula was recently appointed as a council member to the newly formed Staffing Leadership Council here in US, which is part of the Women Business Collaborative, a movement that is committed to the acceleration of equitable and inclusive workplace environments in the staffing industry. Welcome Ursula, excited to be talking with you today.

Ursula Williams: Thank you, Bruce. I'm really have happy to be here.

Bruce: Great. So, let's dive straight in. So we always ask our guests the very first, very first question is always the same. How did you get into the workforce industry and what was your journey to where you are today?

Ursula: Okay. Well, I got in probably the same way a lot of others did, by accident. So right out of university, I was recruited to go work at Apple computer here in the Bay Area. I was very happy because it was the end of the senior school year, and I have the entire summer off. By the time fall rolled around and I showed up to work, I realized that I was to meet some people from a company by the name of Adia, which I had never heard of, which is today Adecco.

It turned out that I was what they called payroll employee. So pretty quickly, I learned what that meant was. I actually did not work for Apple. My employer was actually Adia. I was very impressed with the team there. They started taking me to lunch, and asking me to come by, and meet their manager, and their regional. The next thing I know, they had put a job offer in front of me and I thought, "Wow, this is pretty great."

So, I started as a recruiter. Their US headquarters was actually here in Menlo Park, California. So, I migrated over to the US headquarters after a couple of years on the desk. Pretty much for the next 25 years, did a random back and forth between corporate headquarters and field positions.

I started again with Adia. Then, I branched out and went with a group of people who had started their own finance and accounting firm, was a really, really small firm but we were acquired by Select Appointments, who was eventually acquired by Vedior, who was eventually acquired by Randstad. I think I counted one time, Bruce. I had 15 jobs in 23 years of promotions, but I never left my employer, if you will.

I really have had an incredible, I would say career in the industry. I tell people all the time, it's the best accident that ever happened because not only did I actually learn recruitment, I learned business, I learned P&L. I learned a lot of international business because I've been able to travel. I've done a lot of different business, and smaller retail, and large volume accounts.

I've worked with a lot of different organizations and learned their organizational design and how it goes, a lot of public speaking. So, it really is an industry that allows you to get an entire wealth of different expertise under your belt and not just recruitment.

Bruce: Well, that's something you and I have in common. When I was at school, the careers master wasn't necessarily recommending staffing as a career at the time. That was years ago. I'm just thinking, all of those companies you were in and then ended up being acquired. Perhaps you were in the pitch deck, "Hey, you buy this company. You get Ursula.”

Ursula: I like that.

Bruce: For those listeners who must have been living under a rock, if they don't know what SIA are, but we might have some. If you would just explain who Staffing Industry Analysts are and briefly describe your role as the global advisor on staffing and workforce solutions.

Ursula: Yeah, absolutely. So, we are a research firm. I do think a lot of people get confused with what SIA is because we have a lot of different products that we deliver our message out with. We are a global advisor on staffing and workforce solutions. We do that both for the staffing side of the business, as well as the Fortune 2000.

So, our memberships are both sides of the equation and the entire supply chain in between. We inform, connect, and elevate through a variety of different ways. I think that's where the confusion comes in because we do have an entire editorial department. We have a research department. We have a conferences department. We have a certifications group.

So again, those are just ways that we're able to get out our message and to be able to again, inform, connect, and elevate the workforce solutions ecosystem. At the heart of it, we are a research firm and we're international. We cover the entire globe, which is quite difficult in ever-changing times.

Bruce: At Allegis, we've certainly had a great time and learned a lot from you guys in our partnership over the last many, many years. So, thank you for that. So, I'm eager to get to the topic of discussion today, women in the staffing industry because I know it's something you are very passionate about and very active in driving across our industry.

SIA, you recently have released a report aptly called Women in Leadership in the US Staffing Industry. Can you highlight some of the key findings of that report, and what's it telling us about the progress or lack thereof of representation of women in leadership position particularly in the staffing industry?

Ursula: I'd love to and just a little bit more in background behind it. We've been wanting to do something and do some kind of a research report on women in leadership in the staffing industry, and it's been difficult to do. What was most exciting and probably a silver lining of the pandemic is a lot of different groups began to emerge that were women leaders in staffing.

This one in particular really emerged and that did get us close to the WBC, which you talked about earlier. This survey and this research was a collaboration between TSE, ASA, the WBC, NAPS, ourselves. We really had never done anything in quite a collaborative nature before. So, it was great to be able to get that out, get a lot of people from the industry and companies participating in it.

Some of the findings are probably not surprising but in some ways enlightening. For example, what we found is when people are coming into the industry. Oftentimes there are more women than males coming in, if not, it's equal. There are quite a few recruiters that are coming in as opposed to at the executive and the leadership sides of it.

What we find is what begins to happen is a few years into it, probably like five, six, seven, eight years into it, we start to see the drop off. Then, we began to see many more women not going into the executive leadership positions and into the board positions. Some of the stats that we had, which was interesting is by different size firms.

Bruce: Okay.

Ursula: We see different things. So in our larger staffing firms, the numbers were 56% of the internal staff are women, 26% end up being executives, and 16% were board members. On the smaller staffing size, the numbers are a lot different. 77% are women and 46% are in the executive positions.

Bruce: Wow.

Ursula: One of the areas where I wish we would have gone just a little deeper in is women ownership. My sense is there's been more access to capital. There's more the minority funding of businesses, and we do see a lot of women starting their own staffing firms. So, we've got to look at that a little bit closer.

While we're talking about women in leadership, the women of color in the staffing industry are very underrepresented as well. So, that's another issue and something that we're highlighting and bringing to the spotlight. 5% of the executives are women of color. I think that's the same as on the board.

So, we really just have to dig in here and figure out what exactly is happening and why are now more women not getting up into the executive leadership roles?

Bruce: Those women, are they disappearing from the industry or are they taking lateral moves and just moving around the industry that get stuck to that levels?

Ursula: It's a great question and it's a bit anecdotal. What we see, because they're not even getting into the manager role, let alone the executive-management role. There's a sense that something happens around 33, 34 years old, which might coincide with starting a family. It might coincide with the struggles of the recruitment industry. It is an incredibly rewarding job, but it's also a demanding job.

So, we're dealing with commissions. We're dealing with long hours. We're dealing with evenings, or perhaps we're talking to candidates, or we're talking to clients. We're dealing with travel when we start to get into the management and executive management roles.

There's a possibility that some of the women are self-selecting themselves and saying, "You know what? I want something a little more stable and a little bit more predictable. I'm going to go into HR. I'm going to go into marketing. I love being a recruiter, but I'm going to go into internal recruiting. I don't have so much pressure on the sales, the commission side. I have one customer company. I'm not dealing with this entire portfolio." So, those are some possibilities of what we're seeing.

Bruce: It's interesting. On a silver lining I guess, is perhaps our industry's benefiting from those folks that have been in the staffing industry going inside and realize how hard staffing is. We are friendlies inside an organization, perhaps. I don't know whether that's probably anecdotally thinking that way.

As talent acquisition, as a function, as a profession inside corporations has grown like crazy. I mean, 10, 15 years ago, there was no such thing as a head of TA. So, our industry has almost become a breeding ground.

Ursula: 100%. We see that. At CWS Summit for example, there's a heavy ratio of women leaders in the programs. Some of them have definitely moved over and they've decided like, "Okay. I started here, but I'm going here." We see that in our large recruiting teams. We see that, again, back in the Fortune 500 of what's happened.

You can go in and you can look at their backgrounds on LinkedIn. Sure enough, you can definitely find that they started in the staffing industry oftentimes. I do think it's a breeding ground. I never really looked at it that way, but that's definitely a trend that exists.

Bruce: I'm just thinking out loud. Should we be comfortable with that, or should we be annoyed with it at the same? We want these super smart people staying in the staffing industry.

Ursula: I think we should be proud of that actually, because I think anytime that we can help further someone's career and they're able to go on and do something that stays inside.

Bruce: Right.

Ursula: It's the broader ecosystem. I think it's a great thing we end up working together in so many different capacities. The challenge is and there's a lot of research on this. That when you have a more diverse executive team, you really have different ways of thinking. You develop different expertise, and even profitability starts to come into it. So, there's a lot of benefit for organizations to have diverse executive teams and management teams.

I think that's the issue. It's really getting to the bottom of it and figuring out what exactly is going on. How is it that we can have these ratios when you even look at the college graduation rates. I think even in the Ivy Leagues, when you'll get the percentage of women who are graduating, and then you look at the percentage of women that are again, sitting on boards or in an executive leadership on the Fortune 500. When we think outside of staffing, it's improving but there's definitely a fall off.

I think that's the issue. It's just how do we create a balance and what do we do to ensure that they're getting to those positions that they want to. We're going to deal with the staffing industry today. There's others that are tackling the world, but I think that the issues are very similar.

Bruce: If we think about what we've all lived through the last couple of years now, so remote work has been becoming more of the normal, been accepted. At the same time that we're seeing more women opt out of the workforce than men for different reasons. Do you think that it's a positive going forward? That if there is more acceptability of remote work than those women that had got to that five to eight-year experience can actually stay in the industry longer if they have that increased flexibility?

Ursula: I definitely do. I think that it's not only just on travel because I think that's been a real difficult thing for women to do, especially moms. The industry has been one of that there's a lot of meetings. The executive teams get together, and you're traveling to headquarters or you're traveling to a common place.

I do think in the last 20 months, we've seen so much Zoom calling, and conference calling, and people are realizing, "Wow, you know what? We have people traveling from coast to coast and they're in the air longer than they're in the meeting." So, this is probably better for us overall. So I think that, that definitely should open up opportunities and help alleviate some of the pressures that exist for everybody. Definitely, I think for the moms in particular.

Bruce: We've seen it, really highlighted in our implementation teams who are predominantly female. That in the olden days, every week they'd be jumping on a plane to go and do a 10, 12-week implementation traveling every week. Now, we do those remote. So, that's had a very positive impact on those people's lives. They've got their life back. So, it's been an incredible silver lining right there.

So from your lens, and I guess you're one of the ones who have stayed in the staffing industry, or albeit slightly one step sideways. I don't know how you'd explain that on your SIA. I'm not actually in a staffing company but very, very right at the center of the staffing industry. You've got yourself up to your current goal of the chief operating officer.

As you look through your own lens and also anecdote to what you're seeing with some of the staffing firms who have higher percentages further up the tree, what are some of the best practices you're seeing that you could share?

Ursula: I'd love to. I was reflecting on this and I was just thinking back to like, "What are some of the things, and how did I stick it through in terms of some of the more difficult times?" Look, there's amazing, fun, exciting, and really rewarding. Getting somebody a job and their ideal job, it is just the best feeling ever.

So there's that parts, but there's definitely the hard parts. When you look at fill rates and you talk about, "Oh, there's a 60% fill rate. 40% you're failing." So it's really, it's tough. Some of the best practices and some of the things that I definitely have experienced along the way is first of all, just sponsorship, mentorship. I've been really fortunate that I have had people that have seen just things inside myself that would make me a great leader and a manager.

A lot of those people have been men, which is interesting, where they've been able to say, "Listen, we think that you'd be great at doing this." They'd then taken me through particular exercises, experiences that would advance my own capabilities like P&L before I was responsible for P&L, really understanding the quantitative aspects of the job, and the ratios, and what it takes to run a profitable, successful business, making it reasonable.

I know when I first had my daughter. I thought, "How am I going to do this? How am I going to be in the office at 7am, stay in the office until 7pm?" I had a lot of people that were supporting me. So, I would just say like building systems that support women in particular, and with women that are moms, women that are taking care of their parents. I think that's the other issue that we have. There's a whole generation that they're in between.

Technology, I think I was very technologically ... I was interested. I'm a very curious person. All these stereotypes that exist where women aren't great at math, and science, and technology, and P&Ls. I don't think that's true, but I do think that people box themselves in.

Some of the best practices that exist is really organizations, helping people to be able to have those experiences before that time comes about, because I think that's really important. Also, one of the things that the WBC ... They have nine principles. One is just looking at pay and ensuring that, that the pay and also the inclusion of the role when you're sitting in an environment or you're looking. You're maybe the only woman in an entire team of men executives, just making sure that the inclusion aspect is there as well. I think it's really important.

I also think women supporting women is a major issue, and there are a lot of women talking about that. Sometimes, women aren't necessarily as supportive of other women. There's a group and it's expected that it's kind of like, "Well, I had to work really hard to get here. I'm going to make you tough. So, you know what you're going to experience when you get there." Depending on the generations, that's not necessarily the way forward. So, it's definitely being more supportive in that way as well.

Bruce: The WBC you mentioned, that it's Women's Business Collaborative, right?

Ursula: Yeah.

Bruce: So just people wanting to google that after the call, so I'll just spell that out. Another point on that, that got me thinking. Hopefully, that the old male-dominated board meetings or exec meetings when everything is around a sport analogy and then women don't feel left out the conversation. If you bring guys in to hang out, you're going to have a game of golf.

I'd like to think certainly from my lens it's gone, but I'm sure it hasn't completely. Do you think we've made progress in that area?

Ursula: I think we've made progress in the form of awareness, but I definitely think it still exists. I hear a lot of stories about it. One of the other keys to success is really teaching women how to deal with it. You know what? One of my favorite stories is the group that's going to go out golfing and they turn around to the female on the executive team and they say, "Well, you can drive the cart." It turns out, this was a college athlete who was on the golf team and that type.

So it definitely exists, but I do think that things are breaking down. There is more awareness and women are definitely more confident and able to speak up to say, "Hey," and just kind of calling it out. Men are confident calling out other men on it. So, there's more transparency around it. So, I definitely would like to agree with you that it is improving.

Bruce: It's also a cultural thing. I've been in the US now, 11 years. I'm from the UK. First thing I have to learn is stop calling my beloved football soccer. Anyway, not my European colleagues. They would not allow me to that. Sport is far more prevalent in the US than they certainly are in Europe. Everything is knocking the ball out of the park and it goes on, and on, and on.

So I think it is a cultural thing that as you say, I think people are aware of it. Then, the next step is actively stopping yourself using those terms to be more inclusive.

Ursula: It's interesting because when you start to really dig in, there's the sports part about it. There's just the, "Want to go grab a beer," part of it. So even just the part around, "Let's go grab a beer. Let's go grab this. Let's go to the range." It's just a bonding. It's just a form of bonding, but I definitely think that it's different.

It's not as common I think for, especially again, a woman who has to go home and has a family. They're not going to be able to just go grab a beer. Then again, they might be able to, but I think that there are just scenarios and there's no rules necessarily. It's just kind of breaking it down and having open communication.

Bruce: Inclusivity is all about being more thoughtful and being more mindful. So, I think there's a couple of examples that hopefully people can just think more consciously about.

Ursula: At the same time not being offensive. I actually had someone say to me one time like, "Hey, we're going to go grab a beer, but tomorrow night we can go shopping." I was like, "Hey, just because I'm a woman, you think I want to go shopping? You know what? I can go." I can drink whatever I want to drink when I'm there. There's really two sides to it.

Bruce: Yeah, absolutely. A little bird told me that you're writing a book with some of your colleagues and associates. So, there's some advice in there. I know you personally, you're very passionate about your piece of that. So, just want to share something about that book and your chapter?

Ursula: I would love to. So, more to come on the book. We're currently under a little bit of an embargo with regards to who's participating and all of their chapters. We're looking to get it out in February '22, which is right around the corner. My chapter unless the publisher tells me no, is going to be titled Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable.

It's really about pushing yourself into new areas and realizing that when you take the more challenging path and the unknown path, it can lead to great rewards. There are a lot of people around that can support you in doing it. When you venture into something new and in this case into management, maybe regional management, executive management, on to a board position, it is uncomfortable.

No matter what kind of group you're sitting with and what the diversity exist, it's something that I do think people have to get more accustomed to. I've had a lot of experiences along the journey that I shared with you earlier, again in different countries, and different companies, and board rooms, and mergers and acquisitions.

There was that moment where I was thinking, "Whoa, this is a lot." Then when I'd look back, they were again, the most rewarding and fulfilling times of my career that really gave me an entirely new set of experiences to pull on and to grow from. I also just think in the world today, change is something we can definitely count on. It's uncomfortable, but I think that the more accustomed we get to it, the better off we are.

Bruce: I think it ties back nicely when you mentioned earlier about mentors, having making sure you got mentors around you because that might be a bit more comfortable to be uncomfortable when you know somebody's got your back and that you'd go to for advice. So I think that's true, quite hand in hand.

Ursula: Definitely, yeah.

Bruce: Great. Well, we're coming towards the end of our chat here. So, I'm going to put you on the spot. If you had a crystal ball and you can pick the moment in time to whatever years you think want to go with. Few years out, what do you think the industry is going to look like from everything we've been talking about today in terms of women in leadership positions?

Ursula: I think we're going to continue to see improvements. Already here in North America, when you look at the head of manpower, the head of Randstad, the head of Adecco, Kelly, FCG, AGS, and what you've all done. There are so many powerful women leaders that are at the heads of these organizations or in the executive management teams. I really believe that we're going to continue to see more of it.

Also, when you look at the midsize, the 500 million, 600 million firms, and it takes a lot to get there. There are a lot of women-owned businesses. So, I think we're going to continue to see more of that. One of the areas also, I think that's going to happen though. There's going to be definitely more technology and we've got to get more efficiencies in the business. So, I do think there's going to be more pressure on margins and quantitative going forward, and how do we drive more scale in our businesses?

So those quantitative skills absolutely need to be honed by everybody. That's an area where our up-and-coming leaders, men and women, but in particular I think that if we have women on the teams that aren't comfortable with that, we've got to get them exposed to it.

On the flip side, and there's been a lot about this. The emotional quotient that is needed to drive teams forward in today is something that everyone's talking about. You can look at all the research that EQ is just so important. I think that, that's something that it's innate.

There's a lot of women and women leaders come to the business with that. So, that's going to be a really great balance because on one side of it with technology and the quantitative aspect, but on the other side of it, the EQ which they naturally have, which not all people have is going to balance it out.

So my hope for the future, it's going to be different. I think that we're going to continue on the path that we're on, but it's not going to just happen. We really have to hone in to our own businesses and look to see who our future leaders are, and what skillsets do they need to be able to really be successful and to make it, and blended teams in all aspects of diversity.

Again, just really critical to the more balanced organizations, more profitable organizations. Organizations that can recruit and retain talent, and really create incredible cultures where people can stay for a long time are what's needed. So, that's my hope and that's what I think will happen.

Bruce: Fantastic on that very, very positive note. I'm there with you all the way, by the way. Thank you, Ursula. Thank you so much for joining us today. Where should listeners go if they want to learn more about SIA?

Ursula: Oh, thank you. Our website's a great place. So, it's www.staffingindustry.com. We host conferences seven times a year. We have webinars. We have a member services team that can help out, and I am always available. So, I'm on LinkedIn. I'm on Twitter. I'm pretty easy to find or you can just reach out to me directly.

Bruce: Great. Thank you, Ursula, really appreciate it.

Ursula: Thank you, Bruce. Thank you so much.

Bruce: To learn more about AGS, please check us out at AllegisGlobalSolutions.com. You can also send questions for me or our guests. Just tweet us @AllegisGlobal with #SubjectToTalent or email us at SubjectToTalent@AllegisGlobalSolutions.com. Until next time, cheers!