Why Women Aren't Being Hired - It's a Numbers Game

Despite massive budgets dedicated to diversity and inclusivity, white males dominate board rooms and executive positions – unconscious bias may be to blame.

Despite massive budgets dedicated to diversity and inclusivity initiatives, white males continue to dominate board rooms and executive positions – and unconscious bias may be to blame.

A recent report in the Harvard Business Review opens with a sobering statistic: “There are more CEOs of large U.S. companies who are named David (4.5%) than there are CEOs who are women (4.1%) – and David isn’t even the most common first name among CEOs. (That would be John, at 5.3%.)”.

This is now well reported with campaigns often fronted by militant women who talk passionately about the glass ceiling. And the facts really do stack up...

The body of evidence suggesting that diversity in the workplace has a measurable positive impact on business continues to grow, according to Forbes, yet women hold only 14.2% of the top five leadership positions across all S&P 500 companies, as CNN reports. But the action and reaction til now, just hasn’t seemed to match the real need for a change of thinking and behaviour!

Even the hundreds of millions of dollars companies like Google invest in diversity initiatives seem to have had little impact to date. So what can be done to enact real change? Research suggests that workplace equality begins with eradicating bias from the hiring process.

Bias and the Status Quo

Anyone who has gone through a significant transition (and whom among us hasn’t?) knows intuitively what research, such as in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, is now beginning to support empirically: change is hard. We disproportionately stick to what we know and what has been established, from basic purchasing decisions to filling leadership positions.

That 95% of CEOs are white and male begins to make a little more sense if we take into account that bias is its own feedback loop, according to Catalyst – white male board members will unconsciously gravitate towards white male hires to fill leadership roles. Recognising this basic truth is the first step towards breaking the pattern and thus achieving meaningful progress on D&I initiatives.

The Research

Luckily, eradicating unconscious bias from the hiring process may not be as complicated as it first appears. Emerging evidence suggests that simply diversifying the pool of finalists boosts the likelihood that a woman or person of colour (or both) will be selected for the role.

Professors at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business conducted three studies to evaluate the impact of the status quo on hiring decisions. The first two studies asked undergraduate students to review the qualifications of three candidates in the final phase of hiring. The candidates were all equally qualified, but varied in race and gender.

What the studies revealed was a propensity to hire a candidate whose race or gender was among the majority of the other finalists. In other words, when the majority of candidates were black, participants were more likely to recommend hiring a black candidate; if the majority were white, there was a greater chance the recommendation would go to a white candidate. The same held true for gender.

The third study examined a university’s hiring decisions for academic positions, yielding compelling results. According to the researchers, “We found that when there were two female finalists, women had a significantly higher chance of being hired… There was also a significant effect for race.”

In fact, the odds of hiring a woman increased more than 79 times if there were at least two women in the hiring pool, and more than 193 times for a minority candidate if there was more than one person of colour among the finalists.

The Implications

The results of this study were conclusive: by simply including one additional female or minority candidate in the final stage of hiring, managers dramatically level the playing field. For those who would argue that this amounts to affirmative action or ‘reverse discrimination,’ remember that there are twice as many nonwhite workers and women in the workforce as men, and that more women hold university degrees.

Moreover, when employers use a blind audition process to hire programmers and engineers, women are selected more frequently than men. The existing gender discrepancy in hiring is not due to any lack of merit, then, but instead to deeply ingrained biases.

Trusting your gut is not the best (or most fair) way to make a hiring decision. The process needs to be backed by data and understood within the context of unconscious bias. As the researchers attest, “Basically, our results suggest that we can use bias in favor of the status quo to actually change the status quo.” It just may be that simple.

(Image credit: Lisbon Council/flickr)