Unconscious bias in the workplace is a topic that tends to make people feel uncomfortable. Even if someone admits to having personal explicit or conscious biases, there is a general feeling of helplessness as to the best way to identify and overcome implicit or unconscious bias. Unfortunately, any kind of negative bias tends to work against minorities and women, and there is growing focus right now on gender discrimination – how it continues and what can be done to end it.
The bottom line is that conscious and unconscious bias leads to gender discrimination in the recruitment and hiring of women. Bias is buried in recruitment tools, the language of job descriptions and interviewer questions, job candidate assessments and the perspectives of hiring managers. A solution is eliminating human bias by standardizing the recruitment and selection process through the use of valid and fair technology-based tools.
GENDER DIVERSITY IS GOOD FOR ORGANIZATIONS
Gender diversity benefits organizations. That has been repeatedly demonstrated in various studies, like the one leading to McKinsey & Co.'s "Delivering Through Diversity" report. The study links gender diversity and financial performance, and companies in the top quartile for gender diversity in 2017 were 21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability. There are other statistics linking gender diversity, especially in top management roles, to out-performance on revenues, EBIT margin and value creation.
The STEM industry is a good example of one having a well-known gender diversity issue that seems self-perpetuating. Women in Computer Science projects computer science jobs to grow 15-20 percent by the year 2022, and the majority will be filled by men. Only 12 percent of engineers are women, and the number of women in computer-science related fields has declined from 35 to 25 percent in the prior 15 years. Women are graduating in ever growing numbers in STEM fields, so it is not a lack of qualified job candidates.
To achieve gender diversity, women must first get past the recruitment and hiring processes.
CREATING THE WRONG IMPRESSION
You may not realize your recruitment and hiring processes are biased. When senior leaders are asked about the lack of women in management positions in various industries, the responses are statements like:
- "We strongly believe in diversity, but few qualified women are applying."
- "We are proactively recruiting women, but the available jobs have not appealed to women."
- "The women candidates have not been good fits for our organization."
- "I am not sure why we are having trouble recruiting women."
Why are few women applying? Why are the job postings not attracting women? How is a job candidate identified as qualified? How is a "good culture fit" identified?
Do women really have an equal opportunity, or are the recruiting and hiring systems compromised by unconscious bias? Eliminating conscious bias is a lot easier than taking unconscious bias out of any process. The web-based recruitment program may have all the right buzzwords, like "equal opportunity" and "diversity and inclusion," but the job description itself is often riddled with terms associated with males.
Words like "action oriented" and "strong" and "assertive" are masculine words that convey the idea the job is targeting male candidates. The language in job announcements or job descriptions frequently describe a certain type of person and not behaviors, thus women who do not think of themselves in terms of typical male descriptions are not likely to apply.
DIFFERENCES IN PERCEPTIONS
Gender research indicates men are transactional, viewing work as a series of transactions that employees need to complete to earn rewards. Women have a transformational perspective, so have a more collaborative work style as a means of inspiration and motivation. For example, when recruiting for a management position, a job description's language implying the organization wants a hard-nosed command-and-control kind of manager can lead to women perceiving the organization wants to hire a man. It is unconscious bias driving the choice of words.
Proving bias can creep into every effort. Amazon recently discovered the power of biased language when it realized its computer program to automate the resume review process was screening out women. The hiring tool used Artificial Intelligence (AI) to score candidates and was not using a gender-neutral analysis.
The reason was that AI used algorithms based on resumes submitted over a 10-year period, and in the tech industry, males submitted the most resumes. The programmers and analysts also did not recognize the bias that developed in eliminating resumes that contained the word women or women's, as in "women's chess club captain." The program also downgraded women graduating from two all-women colleges and favored resumes of engineers that used male words, like "executed" and "captured."
A key question to ask yourself is whether your applicant screening program or process is fair to everyone.
DEEPER THAN LANGUAGE
Bias in recruiting and selection processes goes much deeper than language. For example, does the job description have specific required criteria for a job when a better measure of success is a job applicant's ability to work in a dynamic, multi-tasking work environment? One of the main purposes of valid pre-employment assessments is to identify people who will perform well because they have the right aptitudes, motivation and personality, along with basic knowledge and skills.
- Are you asking the right questions about the factors influencing recruitment and hiring outcomes in your organization?
- Does the job criteria contain biases reflecting assumptions that a man is best for the job?
- Does the job description, resume screening and assessment process allow job candidates to demonstrate life experiences that are applicable to the position but not normally included on a resume? (This is particularly important to achieving fairness among diverse people.)
- Is the language focused on a particular type of person - like a "results-driven, independent decision-maker" - rather than the behaviors that make an employee successful in the job – like ability to collaborate and problem solve?
BIAS IN THE INTERVIEW
Besides language, the other challenge is overcoming unconscious bias in the interviewing process. There are two challenges to overcome. One is that people like to hire "people like me" who are people who have similar life experiences, work interests and physical characteristics. It is called a "personal similarity bias" or "familiarity bias."
On the other hand, interviewers may have a perception that males perform better than women, rather than a problem with stereotyping women. This idea, presented in research by assistant professors at Harvard Business School, adds another dimension to gender discrimination and once again demonstrates the power of unconscious bias. Trusting people to make good hiring decisions does not necessarily lead to bringing on board the best talent.
SCREENING OUT BIAS
There are many types of unconscious bias. If you think bias is complex, then you are right. It hides itself in many ways.
Eliminating bias from the recruitment process requires a fair process that attracts and engages the right applicants while serving as an initial screening tool that also educates applicants on the job and company culture. Using valid assessments of job candidates, from resume reviews to final selection, can eliminate most human biases.
Standardized or customized recruiting tools and assessments must be based on science, and the results must be regularly and carefully analyzed to ensure unintended outcomes are not produced. If exclusion of women continues, then your job descriptions, interview questions or current assessment systems are probably filled with unrecognized biases. Valid, reliable and fair assessments include skills and technical testing, job simulations and situational judgement assessments, all of which identify and analyze applicant characteristics relative to top talent and the job.