These cognitive biases which negatively impact the recruitment of women

In theory, women and men have the same chances in the recruitment process. But in practice, women unconsciously turn away from certain job offers and their applications are not always studied as thoroughly. What is to blame for this? Cognitive bias plays a major role in the recruitment process.
  • Women submit fewer applications
Encouraging more objective recruitment
Although discrimination when recruiting is prohibited in many countries, several studies have shown that the recruitment process is affected by cognitive bias. Why do women apply for certain roles less than men? How can we combat these prejudices holding back workplace equality? Here are some possible solutions.

Pink for girls, blue for boys. Firefighters for men, nurses for women. That is an illustration – albeit exaggerated – of the “gender bias” by which we are unconsciously governed. A result of our social and cultural background and our upbringing, these cognitive biases are “shortcuts” created by our brain to facilitate the collection, classification and analysis of information. The problem is that this shortcut often comes at the expense of objectivity. Prejudices are hard to overcome and, even today, it is difficult to imagine a female fighter pilot or a male secretary. At a time of gender equality in business, how do these cognitive biases influence recruitment processes?

To lead or to build?

A study(1) conducted by the US firm Textio shows that bias begins at an early stage... from the wording of the job offer! To carry out its study, Textio analyzed several hundred million job offers. The results are very telling  if an advert contains the verb “lead”, then fewer women apply than men. Change the verb to “build”, and the profiles will be very different!  

American researchers had already examined the subject by studying the scope of the words(2) “leaders” and “competitive”, which are more frequently associated with male traits. Women are more receptive to terms such as “interpersonal relations” and “support”. The conclusion is that the choice of words when writing a job offer is decisive and if you are looking for “a computer ninja” or “a web rockstar”, it’s a safe bet that 99% of applications you receive will be from men.

Women submit fewer applications, but of a higher quality

To understand the impact of gender on applicants’ careers, last March (3) LinkedIn conducted a massive study analyzing billions of interactions, from the job application through to recruitment. 

The first lesson from the study is that women view more job offers than men, but apply to far fewer (20% less on average globally). The reason is simple: before applying, a woman believes she must meet 100% of criteria, while a man will be satisfied with 60%. More surprisingly, the LinkedIn study emphasizes that recruiters are more willing to click a male profile (13% more clicks) than a female one. 

How to create an unbiased advert

So how can we counteract these unconscious cognitive biases that seem to dominate the selection of profiles? Simply by removing indicators such as applicants’ names and photographs, suggests LinkedIn. The professional network also encourages recruiters to pay close attention to job descriptions, since women are more interested in benefits (job flexibility, healthcare, etc.), the pay scale and operational tasks.

More demanding recruiters

However, these precautions are not enough on their own, since new cognitive biases enter the picture once this initial selection is over. This is revealed in another survey, this time by the University of California and the University of Southern California. This found that in a recruitment interview female applicants will be interrupted more (25% more on average) than their male counterparts. Recruiters become more demanding, questioning them on their skills and dwelling on their lack of experience. And that's tough for a woman with a child! Female applicants, meanwhile, tend to over-prepare, making the interview very academic. Fearing trick questions, they focus more on their weak points rather than their skills.

Is AI sexist?

So what solution is now available to recruiters to reduce cognitive bias? There is massive interest in Artificial Intelligence for recruitment... but the reality is more complex. Amazon’s difficulties are a good example. The objective of the AI developed by the firm was to identify the rare pearl by sorting through applicants’ CVs. The problem was that women applying for a technical job were consistently given a lower rating. How could AI be sexist? Because the algorithm was only reproducing what it had been taught! In this case, it had been developed and trained using mostly male employee profiles. 

There are many cognitive biases in the recruitment process and they need to be properly known and understood to avoid the pitfalls. This requires real awareness on the part of HR departments, as well as women. The surest way to combat these prejudices is to encourage a redistribution of roles that are frequently gender stereotyped. Paternity leave is one example and shows that it is possible to be a leader, father and effective employee, without that having a negative career impact.

(1) https://www.bbc.com/news/business-44399028?ns_campaign=bbcnews&ocid=socialflow_facebook&ns_source=facebook&ns_mchannel=social

(2) Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality

(3) “Gender insights report: How Women Find Jobs Differently", published on March 5 

Photo credits: Franck Dunouau, Saint-Gobain, Weber Sweden, © Jacob Lund/Shutterstock