Unconscious social beliefs lead to gender bias in employment. Here’s how to counteract them.
Despite frequent coverage of gender inequality in hiring and pay in national and HR industry media, meaningful progress appears to be elusive.
Women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, they’re still far more likely to be deemed unqualified for roles—despite their credentials—and are more likely to be passed up in promotions to leadership positions.
Thankfully, there are a number of workflow-friendly interventions, that, when combined with a greater awareness of biases, can greatly reduce the impact of gender bias in employment and increase the sex diversity of hiring outcomes.
Gender bias in employment occurs when deeply-instilled gender-based stereotypes are acted upon.
As strange as it sounds, gendered hiring discrimination isn’t about the gender of the discriminator—research has shown this bias in both male and female hiring decision-makers. Instead, discrimination occurs on the basis of widely-held beliefs about the characteristics of various groups.
“Anytime an employer has beliefs about differences on average between two groups and you’re a member of that lower-performing group, that may impact your ability to be hired,” said Katherine Coffman, Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School. “Even when your own individual [performance] is strong.”
It’s these culturally-instilled beliefs about women that lead us to perceive them to be less capable in the workplace. This is what often blinds employers to the true individual traits of any given female applicant, according to Coffman.
“Most of the time, women and girls are at no inherent disadvantage due to a lack of ability that warrants differential treatment. Gender equality can often be achieved just by holding everyone to the same standard,” said Beatrice Alba, an evolutionary psychologist and research fellow at La Trobe University. “The problem… is the irrational gender bias that women and girls are routinely subjected to.”
In attempting to demonstrate this effect, one experiment divided participants into two mixed-gender groups. One watched a video pitch by an entrepreneur seeking funding—voiced by a male narrator—while the other saw an identical pitch from a female narrator. Those in the first group deemed the pitch worthy of funding by a margin of 68 percent, whereas only 32 percent thought the same about the female-narrated pitch.
Discriminatory acts occur so consistently because beliefs about gender are culturally conditioned at an early age. For instance, one study observed that young girls began to more often associate intelligence with males over females at six-years-old.
This follows from what we understand about how information is processed by the brain. Stereotypes prevail, researchers think, because the brain responds more strongly to negative portrayals of groups—compared to positive portrayals—with the neuroscientist author of a particularly revealing study predicting that negative stereotypes may also be more difficult to reverse.
Thus, effectively countering their influence requires thoughtful interventions that bypass or challenge these biases.
Blind hiring and other practices that reduce employment decisions based on stereotypes.
It’s intimidating to confront the pervasiveness of gendered stereotypes. It’s not difficult, however, to create hiring processes that help circumvent our tendency to rely on stereotypes.
Blind hiring is perhaps the most popular diversity-minded hiring strategy. Here, personal information that may identify an individual’s gender, race, religion, age, and other factors are hidden until later in the hiring process.
The oft-cited origin of blind hiring came from an effort the Toronto Symphony Orchestra took to grow their female musician membership. After using a partition to obscure auditioning applicants from raters, their pool of female musicians grew over time from 5 percent female to 25 percent.
While popular and promising, blind hiring has yet to been proven to make long-term progress in preventing discriminatory hiring decisions. In addition to a lack of scientific consensus, critics have pointed out that blind hiring can’t prevent discrimination in later stages of the hiring process, when candidates interview on the phone or in-person.
Available research on the anti-discriminatory hiring practices points to a narrower set of solutions. An academic review of prior research in the area identified a number of methods to reduce the influence of bias in hiring.
Many of these solutions attempt to reduce bias by forcing candidate reviewers to consider relevant qualifications over gut impulses, the latter of which are often informed by the stereotypes in question. Researchers recommend using a candidate-selection process that prioritizes identifying suitable candidates over eliminating unsuitable candidates, finding it to reduce judgments based on stereotypes.
Prior to reviewing applications and resumes, reviewers should first establish the value of various qualifications—like years spent in a particular industry, educational background, and technical skills. Rating applicants by these values ensures a more even-handed read of their overall job suitability.
Other evidence-based tips:
- To the best of your ability, see that your applicant pool is comprised of at least 25 percent women
- Use less stereotypically masculine wording in job ads—like “competitive,” “dominant,” or “leader”
- For help, here’s a breakdown of masculine-coded and feminine-coded words and a gender decoder)
- Visibly display printouts evidence-based research showing that men and women are equally successful in traditionally male roles
- Avoid explicitly gendered job titles, like “chairman”
Diversity thought leaders also recommend a number of other less studied, but potentially beneficial efforts. Such efforts include demonstrating to applicants a commitment to diversity efforts, thought to be particularly impactful for female workers, and additionally addressing inclusion in the office by means of culture-wide changes.
As we try to assemble a workforce that neither looks nor sounds intimately familiar, challenging and circumventing pervasive stereotypes is increasingly necessary. While anti-discrimination practices may reveal unflattering shortcomings, they function like all tools, in extending our inherently limited reach.