The workplace gender bias can strike before people even join the team

Main Image


First impressions have always been important for job seekers. However, sometimes they're meaningful for all the wrong reasons, especially in cases where they're coloured by preconceived biases and other discriminatory behaviours. 

A Harvard study found that gender-based discrimination in the hiring process can come into effect as soon as a hiring manager learns the sex of a candidate, often implicitly. It's an issue that's leading many organisations to rethink the way they survey candidates in the interview process. How far are people going in their efforts to take bias out of the equation?

How to focus purely on someone's job-related abilities

A Sydney Morning Herald article reported on how the issue of gender bias had appeared in the world's symphony orchestras. Professor Iris Bohnet from the Kennedy School of Government found that many of the selection committees for these groups hadn't noticed that their existing processes were creating orchestras that were almost exclusively made up of white males. 

What does this look like in the recruitment process?The solution was almost deceptively simple. Instead of hiring by quota or creating complex recruitment procedures, they simply hung up a curtain for the performers to play behind, letting the committee recruit solely on the way the musicians played their instrument. The professor commented that hiring based solely on a person's talent isn't only applicable for orchestras, but for any other organisation as well. 

Performing anonymously behind a curtain isn't going to work for many businesses, but there are ways to bring the same principles from the orchestral world across to other companies. Professor Bohnet notes that one way businesses can begin to make a difference is through removing identifying tick boxes in application forms, such as those where a candidate is asked to indicate their race or gender. 

Interviewers need to understand what causes bias to form and how to combat them.

It's also important that interviewers make an effort to understand not just the effects of bias, but what they can do to combat it when preparing for interviews, no matter who the candidate is. Professor Bohnet also found that bias isn't just a diversity issue, it can be triggered by all manner of seemingly inconsequential details. 

"We cannot help but be influenced by irrelevant details – a shared joy of celebrity stalking, the colour of an application letter, or a person's appearance," she explained. "Maybe an applicant's jacket is your favourite shade of blue," she says.

"While this fact is unlikely to be relevant for the job he or she is applying for, after having seen a colour you like, you will be more favourably disposed toward that applicant."

Reducing bias in the recruitment process is a combination of both awareness and action. By first learning about these issues and what brings them out, it's then much easier to put a plan in place to reduce their impact. 

By Sarah Banek