This is not what you think it's about.

Have you ever had a hiring director/GM ask you to do a search but specify that the role is only for a woman ?

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I hear you. In Canada (the big friendly country just above you guys) it is also not allowed. I was, however, asked by a GM of a large multinational company to find a woman for a particular role. I submitted a man and was told "I will only consider a woman at this time" when I replied that I didn't realize you could discount someone based on gender I was told: "We need to increase our minority numbers so we are focused on a minority person" He then told me he would send to a different group who might need someone like that.
thanks for your response Karen, I appreciate it. Have continued to submit men for the role.
Not answering your question but a share. I was once the executive officer in a government backed organisation (which as anyone who has worked in the public sector knows I was not really the "executive" officer :)) and had a staff of about 20. One of the aides to the head of the parent department said to me one day when I was looking for a deputy "we think you need some guys (read "males" - at that point in history the word "guys" was used in a more gender-specific way than now) here". I asked why - perhaps disingenuously as I knew all the staff other than me were women. Well, the answer went, we just think you need some guys here. I just appoint the best candidate for the job, I replied, knowing that the fix was in but wanting to make my point. This in a country (Australia) and a state that by then had laws about that sort of thing. But if I thought then or later that I failed in my duty to be a whistleblower I knew and still know that the conversation would have come under the category of plausible deniability. One male was eventually appointed and did not "work out" as they say. After I moved on they appointed a new male executive officer and two male deputies. From what I could gather from insider gossip there was not a commensurate increase in productivity (he wrote ironically).
Penny,

Here in Shanghai we have the reverse situation to the rest of China, where males dominate completely in all aspects of life. In Shanghai the woman is the boss of the family, to an extent, and Shanghai women are regarded as 'LiHai' (capable). The downside is that Shanghai men tend to be the butt of jokes. Mostly unfairly.

So the funny thing is that we often recommend clients to take a female candidate, when the client does not specify it, and especially when the client is new to the China market. And we know what we are doing so we are usually right. If I think back to the most capable, high-impact candidates that I have met over the last 7 years I can safely say the majority were women.

Is this discrimination? Not that it means much here.

Frank
At some point, sometimes you have to consider just walking away from a client when possible if they won't respect that you are looking for the best candidate for the job. Hopefully they will see that you are you are doing the right thing.
I had this happen to me twice, several years ago (though reverse situation), and I just submitted the best people, until I was told, ummm....we don't want to waste your time any more, we are not interested in these candidates.
This is a tough call, Penny. Clearly, there are legal and ethical matters to ponder when a client makes a request like this, but there's also something very encouraging about the idea of a client interested in seeking out women. Depending on their business sector, women continue to be amongst the minority of senior manager or other leadership positions, high or equal-to-male-counterparts in wages, or part of high tech teams (telecom, aerospace, interactive entertainment, Web 2.0, manufacturing, engineering, etc.).
While the client may be inelegant in expressing their desire for a diverse candidate pool, I think this represents opportunity for you to interpret this need correctly and be reassured that your candidates (male or female) will be treated with equal weight by the client, which is not always the case.
Hey Penny,
One of the first search assignments I ever did with a big pharma company, I ran into a bit of a problem. A hiring manager once said to me he would prefer to hire a man as a woman in the role may be detrimental if they get pregnant in a year or two.

They did wind up hiring a woman in the end. She was simply too good to turn down.

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