It's International Women's Day today, which means across the world concerned, thoughtful people will be discussing how to best close the gender gap that keeps the proportion of women in leadership positions so frustratingly small. And while these discussions might reach their high water mark today, there is no shortage of attention paid to the issue the rest of the year either.

The bottom line is this: when it comes to diversity, awareness clearly isn't the problem. And in a lot of companies, good intentions aren't lacking either.

A great many bosses just want to attract the best talent and claim wholeheartedly not care about gender, race, sexual preference, or any other random characteristic. If a little green alien walked in and said they could improve the business, they'd hire them, many entrepreneurs will sincerely tell you.

Yet year after year their teams stay depressingly uniform in their background and companies miss out on lucrative business ideas because of this lack of diversity. What's going on?

How to eliminate biases you don't even know you have

The problem, NYU psychologists Jay J. Van Bavel and Tessa V. West recently argued in the Wall Street Journal, is implicit bias, or in everyday language, all the stereotypes and assumptions we absorb from the culture and which, even if we don't consciously endorse them, shape how we expect people to behave and present themselves.

This is the stealthy cultural buildup that might cause you to recoil when a woman is aggressive but find the same behavior charming in a man, for example, even though few people these days would consciously agree with a statement like "women should be more submissive."

Unconscious bias is pernicious, but in a very real way it's also not leaders' fault. They didn't ask for these ideas to colonize their brains -- they don't even agree with them! But while beating people up over unconscious bias is pointless (especially as science shows basically everybody has hidden biases), we all do have a responsibility to take action to make sure bias doesn't influence hiring. And not only because it's the right thing to do -- diversity is good business.

Thankfully, psychology offers some useful and concrete suggestions on how to do that. Van Bavel and West distill them down to a seven-point action plan in their article. If you're concerned about this issue, then it's definitely worth a read in full, but here are the basics.

  1. Check the job description. "Wording can subtly encourage or discourage different kinds of applicants. For instance, fewer women may apply for a job that calls for a 'dominant' or 'competitive' personality because these are traits that people positively associate with men in the workplace, but negatively associate with women."
  2. Recruit outside your comfort zone. "Companies should create a list of the job qualifications that matter most, and then identify schools and other places where potential applicants have these qualities."
  3. Evaluate every resume the same way. "Develop a standard evaluation form with a detailed scoring metric early on and use it the same way for every resume." You can also try removing names from resumes before reviewing them.
  4. Identify what you want before interviews begin. "Implicit bias can lead us to rationalize why we preferred one candidate over another, so it's important to identify behaviors that are relevant to the open position before interviews begin."
  5. Stick to a script during interviews. "Interviewers naturally create a warmer or more casual climate for candidates they perceive as 'in-group' members--say, those who went to the same university... Sticking to a script during interviews and paying attention to the setting can level the playing field."
  6. Ensure decisions are based on the right metrics. "Automatic preferences for familiar metrics of status and success are very common, which is why companies need to ensure that hiring decisions are based on the behaviors and credentials that are deemed relevant to the position."
  7. Continually analyze the process. "By constantly analyzing the data across every stage, companies can identify bottlenecks."

Has your company taken action to make sure stereotypes and lazy thinking don't creep into the hiring process?

Published on: Mar 8, 2017