How you can address gender bias in hiring at your organization
Hiring 5 minute read

How you can address gender bias in hiring at your organization

Megan Orr | March 8, 2022

Gender bias in hiring and in the workplace in general continues to happen in many industries, holding back female employees from reaching their full potential. Learn how your organization can reduce gender bias in hiring—and why it’s critical that you do.

Mar 8, 2022 is International Women’s Day, described as “a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women”. It’s also a day for acknowledging the work that still needs to be done.

Gender bias is defined by Cornell Law as “a person receiving different treatment based on the person's real or perceived gender identity”. In hiring, gender bias can manifest in many ways and it’s more prevalent than people would like to believe, with women receiving fewer promotions and holding fewer executive level positions to being asked about children and childcare in job interviews, even if single or childless.

Morson Talent found that only 86 women were promoted to management for every 100 men and that “half of men believe women are well-represented at their company when 90% of senior leaders are men”. Although many organizations are aware of gender diversity issues and have made vows to do better, The Harvard Business Review notes that “progress toward gender equity has been incremental at best”. 

The Harvard Business Review describes that much of gender bias in hiring exists in the informal recruitment process, so good intentions can only go so far.

Recruiting often begins before a job description is even posted. Some organizations and hiring managers hope to not even have to post a job publicly. Instead, they’d rather fill the position by way of an informal recruiting process, which includes options such as hiring internally, employee referrals, and word-of-mouth networking.

Another thing contributing to gender-bias in hiring are informal shortlists, where just before or at the start of the hiring process, the people involved will have a preconceived idea of the "right" candidate (e.g. a man in his 30s) and put together a shortlist based on their expectations rather than the actual requirements of the job. 

The Harvard Business Review writes that, for male-dominated roles, “the prevalence of men in those jobs lead people to automatically think that men are more suitable for the roles than women [and] consequently, when people think about candidates who would be a good fit for those jobs, male candidates are more likely to come to mind over equally qualified female candidates”. 

For potentially gendered roles, networking-based candidates may create a barrier for women. The Harvard Business Review recommends extending shortlists, with their research finding that across a variety of different industries, the number of female candidates listed was 33-44% higher with extended shortlists. They write that “adding a few more candidates can increase the gender diversity of your shortlist and reduce the odds that you’ll shun qualified female candidates simply because male candidates come to mind first”. 

It’s important to avoid gender-coded language in the recruitment and hiring process. 

Gender-coded language can range from obvious examples such as “handyman” or “stewardess” to more subtle cues like describing the ideal candidate as “assertive, analytic, confident” or “empathetic, polite, compassionate”. Job descriptions should use neutral language that accurately reflects the skills needed to perform the job.

Men and women often face an entirely different interview experience, where women spend more time justifying their worth as an employee. 

LinkedIn found that, compared to men, women “are more frequently quizzed about their greatest strengths (44% vs. 34%), weaknesses (37% vs. 27%), and failures (26% vs. 20%). Women are also more likely to be questioned about why they should be hired (45% vs. 37%), why they want the job (44% vs. 37%), and whether they’re team players (37% vs. 31%)”. 

Interviewers generally know to steer clear of any “Do you have children?” types of questions, but beyond that, there are many lines of questioning that can be potentially tricky—although, as LinkedIn notes, women are asked about their 5-year plans more than men (43% vs. 34%) which “may be a coded way of asking women whether they plan to start a family”.

Because women are likely to spend more time in their interviews just proving they should even be there, this can lead to what researchers call a “confidence gap”. SHRM notes that men rate their performance 33% higher than women, even when scoring similarly on a test. Additionally, the way that interviewers interpret confidence in women vs. men impacts their overall impression of a candidate. SHRM uses a real-life example of a woman candidate mentioning she had a certain qualification and being described as “[thinking] a lot of herself” by the interviewing panel. A man talking about the same qualifications got a pleased reaction from the same panel. 

Women have a tough time boasting about themselves in interviews and this learned humility means that they may miss out on highlighting experience and skills that could get them hired. On the other end of this double-edged sword, women are also more likely to be labeled as over-confident if they do speak honestly of themselves and their accomplishments. 

Creating a structured interview format that stays relatively the same for each candidate—with some exception made for questions about specific skills or experiences—is essential for decreasing gender bias in hiring. Interviewers should prepare questions to ask candidates beforehand and have an idea of the types of answers they’re looking for. The questions should focus on the interviewees’ skills and relevant experience. 

Morson Talent found that “overall, companies are 15% more likely to perform better if they are gender diverse”. Organizations can benefit from removing gender bias in hiring, but there’s no single solution. Employers need to work continually, and in many different ways, to remove barriers in hiring.

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