Removing Gender Bias from Job Postings

In 2013, I attended the National Women’s Bicycling Forum in Washington D.C. and sat in on the panel discussion entitled “Insight from the Industry: The Keys to Closing the Gender Gap”. In discussing different ideas for inclusion of women in the biking industry, Julie Harris from REI talked about how her organization changed their interviewing process after realizing it was predisposed to favor males. Their former process used to include questions that required applicants to rate themselves, but after learning that males tend to rate themselves higher than women do, regardless of ability, they decided to remove this practice from their employee selection process.

I was impressed that REI took responsibility for their process and did not fault women for answering the way that they did, as I often feel like the solution to problems like this is, “women just need to learn to be more confident!”. (Why never “men need to learn to be more modest!” WHY!?) I find psychology to be so insightful, yet so rarely do I hear about companies learning from its lessons and changing the way that they do things. Bravo REI!

Fast forward a year and a half and I’m toiling with the idea of adding a new person to my team. I started with writing a job description to make sure I knew exactly what I wanted this person to do (Simply “Help Us!” doesn’t work – I tried). I made a list of everything I wanted the person to do. Then I made a list of all the skills I wanted the ideal candidate to have, and then I made a list of certain personality traits that I think this person should possess to fit in with our culture. Much to my chagrin, in doing this exercise, I caught myself drafting a job posting that favors men over women.

There are very few people that would be able to “check the box” for all of these things, and almost certainly no one that would be willing to do it for the what I can pay. Rather, I was hoping that applicants would get the idea of what I was looking for, craft their cover letter and resume accordingly, and then I could pick who I thought was closest to the ideal candidate. Seems logical, right?

Similar to the illusory superiority cognitive bias that men possess and that REI corrected for, I am also aware that women tend to apply for jobs only when they meet 100% of the criteria, whereas men apply when they meet 60%. (This statistic is from a much-quoted research study from Hewlett-Packard). Since I already knew that there was likely no person that could fulfill 100% of the criteria I outlined in my job posting, wasn’t I biasing the application process towards men from the outset?

recent blog post on the Harvard Business Review by Tara Sophia Mohr debates the common conclusion that this disparity in behavior between men and women exists simply because women are not confident enough. Her study showed that the main reason men and women do not apply for a job is because they don’t want to waste their time and energy when they don’t have a decent shot at it. As Mohr succinctly concludes, “what held them back from applying was not a mistaken perception about themselves, but a mistaken perception about the hiring process,” and goes on to say, “For those women who have not been applying for jobs because they believe the stated qualifications must be met, the statistic is a wake-up call that not everyone is playing the game that way. When those women know others are giving it a shot even when they don’t meet the job criteria, they feel free to do the same.”

Equipped with this knowledge, I revisited my job description and job posting and rephrased some things to level the playing field somewhat, such as changing the standard “Required Qualifications” to “Desired Skills & Experience”. I also tweaked the description of my ideal candidate to include being “comfortable with challenging assumptions” to give her permission to break the rules a bit, to apply even if she doesn’t feel qualified. I just hate the thought of the perfect candidate being out there somewhere but not applying because she doesn’t want to waste her time, and I believe these small changes will make a difference.

Have you encountered gender bias in your workplace? In what way and how have you addressed it? I’m very curious to know! Please leave comments below.

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