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Elan Pratzer is managing partner, Canada, for Caldwell Partners.

With over 20 years as managing partner of executive search firms in Canada and the United States, I've read and published many reports on women in the executive ranks and at the board level. I'm in the executive search business, and every day, my firm is specifically self-mandated to dig for female candidates to include on every shortlist of every assignment we conduct. In Canada, we report weekly on our success in this endeavour.

While the statistics on women in the executive ranks are better than they were when I came into the business 30 years ago, it's not better enough. Why? Is it really sexism or prejudice, like so many believe?

At business school and law school in the late 1970s and early '80s, about half of the students in my class were women. As a husband and father to three children (two of whom are daughters), I have lived with and raised women with degrees in neurobiology, law and medicine and with general degrees from some of the finest Ivy League schools. My Toronto office has more female partners than male. I recognize the talent and perspective that women bring to our world and to our businesses and so do my clients and friends. So why this lack of progress? And what can be done about it?

What I'm seeing is actually pretty simple. It's rarely prejudice – in fact, there's a battle for female talent at the board and senior executive level. Our experience shows that when one woman is on the shortlist (there are typically at least three finalists for a coveted position), she has a better than 50-per-cent chance of being offered the job.

The issue is that there aren't enough women at the executive and pre-executive ranks to choose from – too many talented female candidates exit the mid-executive training ranks early, either by choice or because they aren't supported and advanced. The goal everyone agrees on is the advancement of more women into senior executive positions, with the expectation that the resulting role-modelling and culture change will facilitate more women breaking through or being pulled through the so-called glass ceiling. But how do we do this without having enough female talent in the pre-executive or executive ranks?

The solution I propose enhances women's opportunities and helps companies hire the best talent. Let me explain.

When clients look for senior talent, they have a wish list of skills and experiences. They focus on this list to mitigate risk – they want candidates who have done it before. They believe the best evidence of future performance is past performance. Whether that's really true is a matter for another article, but either way, most of my clients want proven experience. Consequently, we are forced to focus on executives who have done it before. Because not enough women have that experience, they don't get selected and the carousel keeps turning.

But skills and experience are very different. For example, I play a lot of golf, but my skill does not match my experience level. I have seen some extraordinary golfers who have been playing for many fewer years.

I propose we change our approach to the search for senior talent – especially as it relates to women – and focus on hiring the best "athlete" – the most skilled, even if not the most experienced. This will open the door for more female executives.

Here are two real-life examples from recent assignments of mine.

I recently conducted a search for candidates to be the chief financial officer of RioCan, Canada's largest real estate investment trust. We placed the former CFO of Tim Hortons, Cynthia Devine. Ms. Devine did not come from the real estate business but wow, is she skilled as a CFO. RioCan made the bold choice to go with a highly skilled female CFO in a male-dominated industry because she was the best athlete for the role.

Last year, I placed the managing director of Canada for BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager. It's a plum job and we had tremendously qualified candidates who were a perfect fit to the experience and skill components of the role specification. What happened? We presented an amazing athlete – Marcia Moffat – and the talented executives at BlackRock, who have a history of hiring for intellect and fit without overweighting experience, quickly identified her unique skills and culture fit. Both executives are excelling in their new jobs.

The moral of the story is that the doors will open wider for women if we give them access to opportunities they are currently denied not because of prejudice, but because of perceived risk mitigation. If we properly weight the value of skill over experience, more women will compete as best athletes. Better-skilled men will also benefit and our companies will be stronger for it.

It's harder to assess talent than experience, but it's worth the effort. You might avoid hiring some golfers who play like me – long on experience, but not on skill.

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