Recruiters, HR, managers, and others involved in hiring need to raise their gender intelligence to level the playing field for men and women. A happy outcome of doing so will be to level the playing field for people of color, too.
The first step is to identify the problem you are solving for. Say you run a company and have a problem with sales. Would you hold a deep, sincere conversation with employees about how much everyone values sales? To make sure the message got through, do you then declare an annual “Celebrate Sales Day”? Of course not. You would analyze sales data to figure out what needs to be fixed. Then you would use the data to establish baselines and change procedures and incentives — and keep doing so until the company met its sales goals.
That’s how businesses get stuff done. If your organization has a problem with hiring, use the same process: that’s the principle behind the new approach to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), called “bias interrupters.” Bias interrupters help businesses apply basic business tools to solving DEI challenges: data, metrics and persistence.
Identify the problem
Hiring is a highly complex process in most organizations, and HR is involved in setting up and carrying out standard procedures. In some companies there’s a separate recruiting department. In addition, for most positions, individual managers are also involved in hiring.
To pinpoint where diversity falls off, the organization should keep metrics on how different demographic groups — including women — fare at four separate points: 1) what is the demography of the original pool of candidates considered? 2) who survives resume review and gets called for an interview? 3) who survives the interview? 4) who gets job offers and who accepts?
If the problem is with the original pool
If the problem is with the original pool, typically one of two things is happening. Commonly, referral hiring will reproduce the demography currently in place in your company. The single most important determinant of a social network is similarity: like likes like.
Keep track of candidate flow through referral hiring, to see if it lacks diversity. If it does, either eliminate referrals (often a heavy lift) or balance it out with targeted outreach to underrepresented groups. Connect with different networks — build relationships with women’s affinity groups in your industry, or with affinity groups of people of color.
This takes investment and time. It’s more than a conversation; it’s a process change. And process change, alas, may mean someone’s ox is gored: that they can no longer just hire friends. It’s crucial to build the momentum necessary for that kind of change, to be speaking from company data, not “we know this is typically where bias creeps in.”
“Men are often judged on potential whereas women have to demonstrate they already have the skills required.”
That’s the whole point. If a company faces DEI challenges, typically it’s because subtle and not so subtle forms of bias are constantly being transmitted through the hiring process. The solution is not a sincere conversation — the solution is to fix business systems.
If the problem is with resume review
If women drop out during resume review, typically, one of two things are happening. The first is to acknowledge that men are often judged on potential whereas women have to demonstrate they already have the skills required. A 2021 study showed that 30% to 50% of the gender differential in promotions was attributable to this dynamic.
The best way to control for potential/performance is to grade resumes according to preestablished standards that identify the skills necessary for the job. Any exceptions to preestablished criteria should be analyzed for demographic patterns. If people at your company are used to going with their gut, this may be controversial. Rest assured research shows this process will help not only women, but also people of color and professionals whose parents did not graduate from college — and it will also provide a better match overall between candidate and job.
The second common problem is candidates who are excluded based on gaps in their resumes. Typically, gaps mothers take due to child-rearing are often treated very differently from gaps men commonly take due to activities like military service. Gaps in a resume should not count unless it’s been so long that skills will have deteriorated. This will vary by industry, so clear guidance should be given to anyone involved in resume review, to increase the pool of candidates considered.
If the problem is with the interview process
The most common problem when few women survive the interview is because every woman is either “too meek” or “too much.” For example, white men can be perceived as having a career-enhancing passion for the business. That same behavior in women can be perceived as “too aggressive,” Black people as “intimidating,” Latinos as “emotional” or “hotheaded,” or Asian-Americans as “off-putting.”
This is known as “tightrope bias.” The best way to correct for performance/potential or tightrope issues is bias training so that people know what bias looks like. The second step is, again, structured interviews with consistent grading standards that separate personality issues from a focus on ability to do the job.
If the problem is with the offer
Once you have consistent grading standards for resume review and interview performance, you can see whether white men from college-educated families are more likely to get offers, and intervene.
Another problem that commonly occurs at the offer stage is when women accept lower salaries/packages. Research shows that often women who do negotiate are penalized due to tightrope bias — the expectation that a “good” woman is modest, self-effacing, nice.
The solution is to send the clear informal message to every candidate that salaries and compensation packages are negotiable. This gives women permission to negotiate and helps to avoid gender pay gaps. Are there patterned differences in the starting salaries/packages of men, women, and other groups? Keep track.
Can’t I just do a workshop on gender intelligence?
Sure you can. But if you don’t fix the process problems I have identified, chances are nothing will change. Again, the message of bias interrupters is that bias does not stem from a few bad actors. It stems from poorly designed hiring systems that fail to interrupt the biases that 100 years of research — I’m not exaggerating — tell us will occur in the absence of well-designed hiring processes.
Harvard Business Review Press
Here’s the best news of all: our research shows that redesigning a company’s hiring systems will improve the workplace experience of every single group, including white men — and will also be more effective at achieving business goals.
Joan C. Williams is the author of “Bias Interrupted: Creating Inclusion for Real and for Good,” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021). Williams is founding director, Center for WorkLife Law, and distinguished professor of law and Hastings Foundation Chair at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.