The discussion highlighted two pieces of research. The first, a survey of over 1000 Australian and New Zealand managers designed to understand the potential for unconscious bias to impact recruitment decisions. You can find the report here.
The results showed that:
- there were more biased decisions in larger organisations,
- hiring managers liked candidates of the same gender better, but men were still more likely to be hired,
- those managers more experienced in hiring decisions were more likely to be biased, and
- women were preferred candidates in public and not for profit sectors, while men were preferred in private.
The second, a global study by Hays showed that men don’t see gender-related problems in hiring and other HR matters, anywhere near as much as women do.
I then provided a presentation on unconscious bias to help make sense of why these patterns show up time and time again.
At the heart of unconscious bias is our gender schema, in which women are associated with qualities of warmth, nurturing and communality, while men are associated with agentic qualities such as commanding and directive. This set of associations is so well learned that we all recognise it easily, even if we don’t agree with it.
Both sets of traits are desirable, but in different ways. Men, as agentic, are respected, while women, as communal, are liked. Men’s traits are associated with power therefore with authority and status while women are associated with nurturing, lower status, and support roles. I’ve written more about this is in working Paper No. 3, which you can find on the Resources page.
These associations unconsciously affect hiring decisions. One way they do that is through a pattern called ‘shifting hiring criteria’, which works as follows: When women are seen as competent (male) but not warm (female), hiring criteria shifts away from a primary importance on competence to an increased importance on social skills, and women who are ‘competent but cold’ are then seen as lacking and not selected for the role. Their high competence is dismissed and lower social skills over-emphasized. Men with the same lower level of social skills are not disadvantaged in this way.
Our unconscious beliefs are not simply private thoughts that stay in our heads, they impact on intentions and behaviour with respect to the decisions we make about others.
Yes, they are difficult to understand, talk about, quantify, because they are not readily observable.
But we can raise to our consciousness their possibility. Having done so we can mitigate against their effects. And we can be confident, that should we choose to, we can avoid making hiring decisions that are inadvertently informed by gender stereotypes.
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