Improving diversity is recruiters' #1 challenge

Written by
Stephen Isherwood
Institute of Student Employers (ISE)

24 Nov 2017

24 Nov 2017 • by Stephen Isherwood

Recent research from the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) showed that improving diversity is the number one challenge for recruitment teams in 2018. So, what are the potential solutions to diversity challenges and are there a few key actions that we can take? Chief executive Stephen Isherwood provides three key suggestions. 

While our annual survey showed that diversity has overtaken Brexit as a key challenge for student employers, this isn’t just a case of talking about the problem: some 75% of employers took specific actions to improve their graduate diversity this year.

Data also revealed that in three years, average gender diversity had improved by 5%, and average ethnic diversity by 2%. 

However, there is still much more work to be done to address imbalances. For example, 54% of university students are women but only 43% of graduate hires on average are women.

There isn’t just a moral argument for improving diversity. Business benefits include wider access to talent, addressing skills gaps and helping to improve productivity and growth.

Here are three ways that you can take action to improve the diversity of your workforce:

1. Set the right targets

It’s commonly assumed that for gender diversity, we should be aiming for a 50/50 balance. But if we look at the student population, we can see that we should be aiming higher - 54% of university students and 52% of school students are female.

So you may want to set your targets and strategy based on the pool of candidates that you are recruiting from. Also consider using benchmarks for specific subjects. For example, 61% of law students and 18% of engineering students are female.

2. Track your diversity data

Diversity data is key for improving social mobility, but less than 10% of employers know whether hires from a low socio-economic background are advantaged or disadvantaged in their selection process.

In many cases, organisations don’t know what to measure. Recommendations include whether a candidate is a first-generation graduate, was state-schooled or privately schooled, or received free meals at primary school.

Another important step is to use your data effectively. A simple test is to compare the share of applicants with one characteristic versus the share of hires with that characteristic.

If there are big differences e.g. if the share of state-schooled applicants is 80% but the share of state-schooled hires is just 50%, then something in your selection process may be turning people off. Making these simple comparisons can help you identify where to focus.

3. Tailor your recruitment process

Consider the ways that you market to candidates. Our annual survey showed that 42% of student employers made sure that they sent diverse representatives onto university campuses in 2017 and 33% ran outreach events for final year students to reach a wider pool of candidates. Some even ran specific diversity internships with the view to re-hiring those people into graduate roles.

You may also want to review your selection process. We found that 18% of student employers used university-blind or name-blind recruitment in 2017, meaning that they did not disclose the names or universities of their candidates to assessors, minimising the risk of any unconscious bias. In addition, 26% offered financial support to help candidates afford to attend selection events and 8% used contextualised screening, which takes a candidate’s personal circumstances into account as well as their grades.

On many diversity challenges, there is still a long way to go. But the good news is that employer efforts are becoming more focussed and effective. Let’s keep sharing what we’re doing and speed up our collective progress.


The data in this article comes from the ISE Annual Survey 2017. This survey received responses from 200 employers which collectively operated in over 15 sectors and recruited over 30,000 graduates and apprentices in 2017. Copies of this survey are free for ISE members or can be purchased by non-members.

Institute of Student Employers (ISE)