5 Surprising Ways Your Recruitment Process and Culture Might Be Biased Against Women

June 29, 2017

Let me tell you about one of the worst interviews I’ve ever had. See if you can spot what went wrong--and as you read, bear in mind that I’m a woman.

It was an open house style evening at a marketing company in Edinburgh. 30 applicants had been invited, and a third of us were female. After a short presentation from the company, we were directed to mingle and network while the recruiters spoke to us individually. Everyone, we were told, would have their five minutes with the recruiters.

But I didn’t get five minutes with the recruiters. In reality, I got less than one. Almost as soon as I began speaking, another applicant (a young man who had already spent his time) interrupted me to talk about himself. The recruiters (both male) did not stop him--in fact, they pivoted their attention to him for the remainder of my time. And, as the evening wore on, I witnessed the same thing happen to at least half the other female candidates.

Getting interrupted more often than men is just one of the obstacles women face during the hiring process and as employees. Below, we’ll discuss what companies should do about this, along with other recruiting processes and office habits that may be unintentionally biased against women.

1. Job ads contain gendered wording that subconsciously dissuade women from applying

Most job descriptions wisely shy away from actively promoting gender bias. But, the language itself can be surprisingly gendered. A recent study conducted by the University of Waterloo and Duke found that gendered wording is still found in plenty of job ads--and turns many women away from applying without them even realizing why.

Words like “superior,” “decisive,” “outspoken,” and “champion” are all stereotypically masculine and will appeal more to male candidates while female-gendered words include “connect,” “honest,” “responsible,” “understand,” and “commit.”

Interestingly, stereotypically female words tend not to put men off. That might be because the ones noted above are all inherently positive when applied to both genders, while an “outspoken” and “decisive” woman is all too often viewed as bossy.

To help recruiters avoid the trap of gender-coded language, software engineer Kat Matfield developed the Gender Decoder for Job Ads app. It’s free to use and incredibly easy--just paste your job description into the box, and the app points out what’s gendered.

2. During the hiring process, women are interrupted more and looked down upon for behaviors that are positive traits for men

In the past few months alone, multiple news stories have revealed something women have known for years--we get interrupted more than our male peers. It happens in boardrooms and meetings at every level of a woman’s career. Even U.S. Supreme Court justices aren’t immune: findings show that 65.9% of all interruptions in the court in 2015 were directed at the three female justices, while female justices were responsible for only 4% of the interruptions made in the last 12 years. What’s more, male justices were three times more likely to talk over a female peer.

Meanwhile, Senator Kamala Harris was recently branded “hysterical” for posing questions at an intelligence committee hearing. “Hysterical” is one of those insults only ever really leveled at women (it’s etymology, after all, relates to the uterus). It’s right up there with “shrill,” “bossy,” and so on, all of which ultimately come down to the same thing: assertive. In men, that quality is seen as desirable.

You might be thinking your company never treats female candidates this way. And you probably don’t intentionally. Unfortunately, unconscious bias has a way of creeping into your decisions inadvertently, and there’s no simple answer for how to change that. But here are a few measures you can take.

When it comes to eliminating bias, investing in a structured interviewing process and training pays off. For one thing, it cuts down on the number of candidates hired by “gut-feeling” alone. You don’t need to have a script set in stone, but using a similar set of interview questions for every candidate makes the process fairer for everyone, and provides you with the consistent responses you need to make better, more objective decisions. And as a bonus, structured interviews can speed up the process for your team--it’s a win-win.

In addition, if you find yourself poised to interrupt a female candidate or colleague, take a moment to question whether you’d do the same to a male saying the same thing. If the answer is no, wait. It’s common courtesy to let a person finish speaking. And if you’re not sure if they are done, you can always count to 3 before saying anything.

The same lesson holds true for any behavior that might seem off-putting coming from a woman. For example, If a female candidate seems overly confident or too assertive, ask yourself whether that same behavior would seem to be a bad thing in a man. You might be surprised what you learn.

3. Women’s resumes are held in lesser regard and they’re more likely to downplay their accomplishments

Multiple studies have shown that applications with a male name attached tend to be more highly regarded than applications from equally qualified women. And skill-based tests bear out these findings, with male candidates being hired over their equally-performing female peers.

In addition, throughout history modesty has been something typically valued more in women than men. The end result is that women (consciously or not) downplay their achievements and find it harder to talk openly about salaries. Men, meanwhile, are more likely to exaggerate their capabilities.

Blind hiring practices can help remove the resume problem, but things are complicated by in-person meetings. Again, the best thing anyone involved in hiring can do is be aware of any potential bias you might experience, and challenge yourself to evaluate every candidate by the same criteria. You can also account for the discrepancy between actual and exaggerated/downplayed competence levels by paying closer attention to the candidate’s resume, and asking smarter questions when calling previous employers for references.

4. Office lingo and swag are geared towards men

Unsurprisingly, gender biases don’t stop once women are hired.

For example, if your team is given swag like t-shirts for company events, be sure to include them in women’s sizes, or choose the unisex option. I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve worked for that ordered bulky shirts that left my male colleagues comfortable while my female peers and I were stuck with something baggy or downright unflattering on us.

Speaking of coworkers, encourage employees to stop using gendered terms like “guys” around the office when referring to diverse groups. I know plenty of women also use this term (myself included, I’ll admit) but it encourages a “old boys’ club” atmosphere that can be offputting and non-inclusive.

Instead, use gender-neutral terms like “teams” to be more collaborative, and try setting up a “Guys Jar” by asking offenders to drop in a dollar whenever they use the g-word. At the end of the month, or when you reach a certain amount, you can put the proceeds to good use--like taking everyone on a team-building exercise, or donating it to charity.

5. Office temperatures are designed to keep men comfortable

When you hear complaints about the office being chilly, more often than not it’s coming from a female employee. The truth is, office heating systems tend to be purposefully designed to accommodate male body temperatures. That might have made sense in the 1960s when most of the workforce were men clad in three-piece suits, but the fact that it’s never been updated boggles the mind.

For those who don’t match the specific height and weight the AC unit was made to be comfortable for (so, most women), offices can seem uncomfortably cold. This isn’t helped by the differences in typical attire between the genders. While some women wear pantsuits, many of us prefer a skirt or dress, often sleeveless. And that means chilly offices make us feel less at home in our work (not to mention chattering teeth put us at a distinct disadvantage in interviews.)

Luckily, this has a somewhat easy fix - talk to the building manager about turning the AC or heat up a bit so that everyone is comfortable. To test it out, you can ask around or send out a survey to make sure the majority of employees are happy.

Final thoughts

Gender bias affects almost every aspect of women’s lives. Taking small steps towards an unbiased hiring process and culture can go a long way towards leveling the playing field and improving gender diversity at your company--something that’s beneficial for business.

Running implicit bias training is one way to make employees more aware of potential biases their female peers may face, and starting a dialogue about it. If you don’t have the resources for this, there are Implicit Associations Tests that can be taken for free online, including ones that reveal our unconscious opinions about gender and careers. They don’t take long to complete, and the results can be an eye-opener.

You can also start an employee resources group for female employees. This provides a place for them to turn for support and open discussion where otherwise there might be none.

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