Not believing in bias leads to bias

Study looks at hiring committees less likely to promote women in science

Not believing in bias leads to bias
Hiring committees that don’t believe hiring bias is a problem are less likely to promote women, according to a study out of UBC.Shutterstock

Hiring committees that don’t believe hiring bias is a problem are less likely to promote women, according to a study out of the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Those who reject the idea that biases and barriers need to be considered in hiring are the same people who are prone to allow their biases to leak out, according to Toni Schmader, a UBC psychology professor and Canada research chair in social psychology.

But when committees believe that women face external barriers, implicit biases did not predict selecting more men over women.

Doing this research in a real-world context provides evidence for what’s been suggested theoretically for a long time, says Schmader.

“If you're consciously motivated to, you can set these boundaries aside. If you don’t think there’s a problem, you might be less likely to.”


The study was based on actual decisions made by hiring committees in France who were looking to fill research positions with the National Committee for Scientific Research (CNRS) for two consecutive years.

The researchers first measured how strongly members from the 40 hiring committees — with about 20 people on each — associated men with science. This was done with an “implicit association test” that flashes words on a computer screen and measures how quickly participants assign those words to a particular category.

People who have a strong association between men and science tend to take longer, and react slower, when challenged to pair female-related words with science concepts, found the study.

Previous research has used a methodology where people are sent applications with male- or female-sounding names — evaluating preferences for either — and the results have been mixed, says Schmader.

But for this study, it’s about a real hiring situation, with legitimate applications from scientists, she says. And the big question is: Do these implicit associations relate to the kinds of decisions that people ultimately make?

“Our research shows… that it really depends. And, basically, those implicit associations seem to bias people's judgment or decision-making — if they don't believe that bias and other kinds of external barriers are a factor. So, there's some irony in that, right? It's the very committee whose members tend not to believe that bias and other barriers are a problem that [is] most at risk at letting those biases potentially play out in their decision-making,” says Schmader.

“On the other hand, [with] the committee members where we measured a stronger belief, on average, that bias is a problem… we didn't see a relationship between the strength of that ‘Think-science, think-male’ association, and the decisions that they were making that really were impacting women's careers.”

Intentional bias

There really is a clear correlation between hiring committees and recruitment efforts that have a more intentional approach to reducing bias and diversity in their hiring outcomes and reducing discrimination, says Ruchika Tulshyan, founder of Candour, a consultancy devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion based in Seattle.

“When that's done intentionally, then the outcomes tend to be much more favourable towards reducing bias. And without that being prioritized, we do end up seeing very much hiring for the same — a lot of reinforcing of some of the discrimination that already exists, whether it's intentional or unintentional.”

Barriers for women can range from male- and female-sounding names on resumés, job listings using terminology that tends to attract more male candidates or the “motherhood penalty” after maternity leave, she says.

It’s interesting to note this research is looking at group-level decisions, says Schmader.

“[It’s about] how do groups help put the brake on biases, not just individually but [with] others sitting around the table at the committee meeting?”

Both men and women on the hiring committees tend to show the science-equals-male association, she says.

 “When it comes to looking at… these implicit associations and the degree to which they can potentially leak out in behaviour, often men and women are equally at risk of falling prey to these kinds of biased associations when they happen.”

Those findings are backed up by a 2012 study out of Yale University, says Tulshyan, that found both male and female science faculty members consistently scored a male candidate higher on a number of criteria such as competency, and were more likely to hire the male.

“It’s not only men who perpetuate that bias, but also women who perpetuate that bias against other women.”


The research is designed to give people strategies for breaking the bias habit, and training can be effective, says Schmader.

“It really does point to the importance of these educational efforts… [with HR] really looking for the best ways to get these ideas out to employees and managers who are in the position of making these kinds of decisions,” she says.

“If you have these explicit beliefs and motivation, the whole point is that awareness can allow you to put these biases aside.”

There’s also research suggesting policies and practices targeted at promoting inclusion can have an impact beyond gender, says Schmader.

“There can be spillover effects… that can also benefit other racial and ethnic minority groups, and vice versa.”

There’s also no reason to think these results are specific to academics, she says.

For employers making hiring decisions, one recommendation is to check in and say, “Where could bias have shown up in this decision?” says Tulshyan.

“We are all preconditioned to have these biases,” she says. “We know that good intentions don't always lead to good impact, but not even having the intention to do good can really create a negative impact… so it’s really important to be able to keep this front and centre.”

The research reiterates that work around anti-bias and reducing bias isn’t “one and done,” says Tulshyan.

“You don’t do it once and then it’s over. It’s something that you have to come back to and revisit and reaffirm at various times, especially on important parts of the process… in hiring, performance evaluations, etcetera.”

From a systems perspective, bias is really “baked” into every sort of institution, she says, and leadership buy-in to fight the trend makes a difference.

“[It’s about] understanding how that bias creeps into so many of our decisions, how our systems were not created equal, how the playing field is not equal. That’s tremendously uncomfortable work and it’s tremendously important work if we want to see any changes being made.”






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