Are you aware of your own gender bias when you're hiring?
A recent study, published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that managers of both sexes are twice as likely to hire a man as a woman.
The study, conducted by business-school professors from Columbia University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago, asked male and female managers to recruit people to handle simple mathematical tasks. The applicants had equal skills, but managers of both genders were more likely to hire men.
The male candidates boasted about their abilities, while women downplayed their talents, but the managers didn't compensate for the difference when making hiring decisions. When the managers were explicitly shown the women could perform the tasks just as well as the men, the result was still that men were 1.5 times more likely to be hired. Even worse, when managers hired a job applicant who performed worse on the test than a fellow candidate, two-thirds of the time the lesser candidate was a man.
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, the CEO of gender consulting firm 20-first and author of How Women Mean Business, writes in the Harvard Business Review that the study is a typical example of the corporate hiring process.
"Until hiring and promotion practices change, women can 'lean in' all they like, graduate in record numbers from top universities, and dominate buying decisions--but they still are much less likely to make it to the top," Wittenberg-Cox writes in HBR. "The corporate world is led by men confident that they are identifying talent objectively and effectively. The reality, underlined by this and many other reports, is that decision making about talent is rife with unconscious assumptions and personal biases."
To help balance the gender gap in hiring, Wittenberg-Cox says leaders need to realize corporate America has a "preference for a masculine style of leadership" that is "deeply ingrained, largely unconscious, and reliably self-reinforcing." The first step to curb this unconscious bias is to "make it conscious," she writes.
Below, read Wittenberg-Cox's three tips to help yourself and your company get over bias against women when making hiring decisions.
Make gender bias a business issue.
If the results of the test don't bother you initially, think about the fact that underqualified men were hired over more talented women. Wittenberg-Cox says you should reframe gender bias as a business issue, not a women's issue. "If managers are choosing less qualified men over more qualified women, the company is clearly losing valuable talent," she writes. "Even if hiring managers are choosing equally qualified men, if they're doing it in dramatically greater numbers (as the study above shows they do), the company is still missing an opportunity to build the kind of balanced workforce that we know produces more creative results."
Change people's minds.
Wittenberg-Cox says leaders need to start educating themselves and managers about the issue of gender bias instead of putting the burden on women to change themselves. "You can expect all your women to suddenly change their behavior and start overselling their skills, as the men in the study above did--but frankly, do you really want them to?" she writes. Research shows when women boast about their skills they are perceived negatively, instead of as confident and ambitious. You need to teach your staff, male and female, about the different behaviors men and women exhibit and how to effectively and accurately perceive them.
Change your hiring systems.
If gender bias runs deep in the corporate world, that means HR policies are often rife with bias too. Wittenberg-Cox writes that many large companies consider "ambition" to be an important character trait for their leadership candidates. When candidates are seen as "ambitious," they're usually boasting, or overselling their talents--a trait studies have shown to be predominately male, she writes. Hiring managers typically believe erroneously that the most self-promotional candidates are objectively the best. "This does not make room to develop the majority of today's talent for tomorrow's world. Nor allow a variety of leadership styles to co-exist," she adds.
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