Reminders about gender bias sway hiring: Study

Employment equity statements can help reduce bias

Without a reminder about employment equity practices or gender imbalances in the workforce, tomorrow’s business leaders revert to using gender stereotypes when making hiring decisions, according to a study.

Despite being raised with employment equity messages from the government, media and schools, undergraduate commerce students are still quite biased when deciding whom to hire for nursing or policing positions, said Willi Wisener, associate professor of human resources and management at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton.

“There is an ingrained perspective that certain jobs are just male and certain jobs are just female,” said Wisener, co-author of the study Are Men Always Picked Over Women? The Effects of Employment Equity Directives on Selection Decisions.

In the study, 396 participants were asked to choose among two men and one woman for a police job, a male-dominated occupation, and among two women and one man for a nursing job, a female-dominated occupation.

When all candidates were equally qualified and participants weren’t given any information about employment equity directives or gender distribution, just 25 per cent chose the male nurse candidate while 47 per cent chose the female police candidate.

But when all candidates were equally qualified and participants were given employment equity statements and told 90 per cent of police officers were male and 90 per cent of nurses were female, 58.8 per cent chose the male nurse candidate and 69.7 per cent chose the female police candidate.

“The employment equity statements certainly do have the effect of changing the proportion of people willing to hire minority applicants,” said Wisener. “It basically reminds them, if you will, that this is an issue and something they should take into consideration.”

Just giving information about the gender distribution was enough to garner a greater proportion of respondents to choose the candidate from the under-represented group, with 63.1 per cent hiring the male nurse candidate and 56.2 per cent hiring the female police candidate.

Participants were even more likely to hire a candidate from an under-represented group if that candidate was more qualified than the majority candidates and information was given about gender representation and employment equity practices, with 84.3 per cent choosing the male nurse and 91.3 per cent choosing the female police officer.

However, if the employment equity statement is strongly worded, and the majority candidates are best qualified, there is a backlash effect against the minority female candidates, but not the minority male candidates. Under this condition, only 29.2 per cent chose the female police candidate compared to 74 per cent who chose the male nurse candidate.

Under the same qualifications, with just a basic employment equity statement and gender statistics, 52.9 per cent would hire the less-qualified male nurse candidate and 34.3 per cent would hire the less-qualified female police candidate.

“People are willing, assuming there’s equality of ability in the candidates, to give consideration to the minority candidate — but they don’t want to be pressured. They don’t want to be forced into doing that. That’s a natural human tendency — that people really like to be able to make up their own minds and not feel someone is coercing them,” said Wisener.

There may be a couple of reasons the less-qualified male nurse candidate didn’t experience the same backlash, said Wisener. For one, most people consider men to be in the majority so they wouldn’t associate the male nurse candidates as falling under the strongly worded employment equity directive.

Also, participants might choose the less-qualified male nurse but not the less-qualified female police officer because people see policing as much more dangerous and the consequences of incompetence more severe, he said.

“If they perceive that a woman is not able to do the job, then they may be a little more concerned about putting a woman in that role,” he said. “A male nurse, even if less qualified, is still able to do an adequate job as a nurse.”

Men also seem to have a structural advantage over women, where they are seen as being best suited for a job regardless of whether the occupation is male- or female-dominated, said Wisener. They also tend to move up the ranks faster in female-dominated positions, which is called the “glass escalator effect,” he said.

The study reinforces the need for organizations to ensure whoever is doing the hiring, often a line manager, is aware of the organization’s employment equity policies, said Wisener.

“Without that, as our data show, people do revert very quickly to their stereotypes,” he said. “But at the same time, that message should not be too strong.”

However, organizations should ensure employment equity policies are in line with human rights legislation or else risk possible discrimination cases, said Natalie MacDonald, an employment lawyer at Grosman, Grosman and Gale in Toronto.

“You always have to be careful. Someone’s going to be unhappy and they’re going to look for a reason they weren’t hired,” she said.

As long as the employer can show there is a bona fide occupational requirement — and often employment equity would qualify — then giving preferential treatment to a candidate from an under-represented group will likely hold up at a human rights tribunal, she said.

“What the employer really needs to do is hire the best qualified candidate. At the end of the day, whether it’s a man or a woman, it needs to be the best qualified candidate. Any time they start (choosing) one sex over the other, they open themselves up to liability,” said MacDonald.

Latest stories