A group of senior executives at a large organisation are assessing internal candidates for an international posting and are given an all-male short list. One of the group asks why there are no women on the list and it turns out an assumption was made that women wouldn’t want the role because of the need to move their family (and partner) offshore.
The list is eventually revised and several women with appropriate skills are asked to apply. A woman is eventually appointed to, and excels in, the job.
Who gets ahead, wins the best assignments and gets promoted is a process that has never been as objective as organisational rhetoric would like us to believe. Without even knowing it, we all have biases and make assumptions about performance and suitability and sometimes those biases are also reflected in the systems used to assess who is best for a job.
That includes the kind of language used in entry-level recruitment ads, through to the way performance reviews are structured and reported, and the qualities that are top of the list for management.
Some fascinating studies in the past few years have examined the way so-called “affinity bias” – feeling comfortable with people just like you – works during recruiting and promoting.
Research conducted in US law and consulting firms by Lauren Rivera, from Northwestern University's school of management, found that senior managers recruit in their own image.
The three-year study Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms reveals that “similarity was the most common mechanism employers used to assess applicants at the job interview stage" and that “hirers at these elite firms favour people like themselves”. One law firm partner told her that the company was “looking for cultural compatibility, someone who will fit in".
More than half of the 120 people Rivera interviewed rated the candidates' ability to fit in culturally above analytical thinking and communication skills. That’s right, it was more important to be part of the gang than have better skills for the job.
Bias continues well beyond entry-level recruitment, with assumptions about suitability and competence for senior roles in particular often related to traditional gender stereotypes. Performance appraisals can be culprits here, and a recent study revealed a big difference in the way feedback is worded and delivered to women and men.
In 2014, research published in Fortune by information technology executive Kieran Snyder, examined 248 employee reviews of 180 people (105 men and 75 women) employed at 28 different information technology companies.
The results found 58.9 per cent of the reviews received by men contained critical feedback, while 87.9 per cent of the reviews received by women did. But on top of that, men were usually given constructive suggestions while women were given constructive suggestions and “told to pipe down", Snyder found.
Further examination of language used in the review reports uncovered other differences. Words such as “bossy”, “abrasive”, “strident”, and “aggressive” are used to describe women’s behaviours when they lead; words such as “emotional” and “irrational” describe their behaviours when they object. All of these words showed up at least twice in the women’s reviews: “abrasive” alone was used 17 times to describe 13 different women. Among these words, only “aggressive” showed up in men’s reviews at all. It showed up three times, twice with an exhortation to be more of it.
Luckily, the bias trap is increasingly on the radar at more enlightened firms. In Australia, the chief executive officer of investment bank Goldman Sachs, Simon Rothery, wondered why there were so few women graduates recruited to the firm. After examining the recruitment system he found that a mainly young male cohort were doing the first round of assessments and were picking people who were just like them. Changing that system has seen the number of women graduates increase from around 30 per cent to 50 per cent.
And in Britain, top-tier legal firm Clifford Chance last year introduced a “CV blind” policy for final interviews with all recruits. The aim was not so much about gender but to ensure a wider range of graduates were considered.
The candidate’s name is the only identifying information given to the assessor with no details of which university or school they attended. And it worked. In the first year the scheme has seen the annual intake of 100 graduate trainees come from 41 different education institutions – a rise of nearly 30 per cent on the number from the previous year.
When it comes to gender, the saying goes that women are assessed on performance and men on potential. But even that performance can be difficult to assess objectively when many of us fall back on familiar stereotypes to decide who looks like an ideal candidate, rather than examining what they have achieved – and not their domestic arrangements.
The executives making assumptions about whether a women’s family situation would preclude her from a job are unlikely to make the same judgments about a man with a family. Luckily there was a diversity champion in the group to point out the need to look more broadly.
As Australia’s former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick has pointed out: if we don’t actively and intentionally include women, the system will exclude them.
Enough of recruitment and promotion criteria and performance management that fails to address bias and reflect diversity in all cohorts: it’s time to actively and intentionally include rather than exclude if we really want the best person for the job.