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The Hidden Ways Gender Bias Can Sabotage Recruitment

Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley
Staff writer
business.com Staff
Updated Apr 20, 2022

The job search is a game. Everyone approaches it with a different strategy – and gender can impact the search in ways you don't realize.

Although you may think your recruiting process is fair, factors you don’t even notice could be eliminating top candidates. Research on gender inequality and social norms from the United Nations Development Programme found that nearly 90% of men and women hold some bias against women. Biases and discrimination against transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming workers are also frequent: More than three-quarters of transgender people have experienced some form of workplace discrimination, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

You can improve your overall hiring process by learning about the implicit ways gender bias can sneak into your employee recruitment.

Gender biases that can sabotage recruitment

Although gender differences and biases are complex, recognizing and acknowledging them is the first step in creating better workplaces for everyone. Here are five common gender biases that can sabotage your recruitment process.

Using masculine job descriptions

The job post is critical in attracting the right candidates for an open position. You labor over the description to create one that reflects the job and your organization. But your carefully crafted job description could be turning off qualified women. Ads that list many traits commonly associated with men are often less appealing to women and result in fewer women applying to these positions. 

These stereotypically masculine adjectives and verbs often show up as desired traits in job descriptions:

  • Active
  • Aggressive
  • Analytical
  • Assertive
  • Boast
  • Competitive
  • Courageous
  • Determined
  • Independent
  • Self-sufficient

Women are more attracted to job descriptions that use more feminine-coded words, whereas wording doesn’t typically make a difference to men.

These are some stereotypically feminine traits to consider listing in job postings:

  • Committed
  • Compassionate
  • Considerate
  • Cooperative
  • Dedicated
  • Interpersonal
  • Loyal
  • Responsible
  • Supportive
  • Understanding

When drafting job posts, try to find a balance between stereotypical feminine and masculine traits. Attract job seekers of all genders by focusing on the necessary skills, experience, and relevant responsibilities. [Learn more ways to create an effective job posting.]

Did you know?Did you know? Job descriptions that read like a laundry list of qualifications often keep women from applying for a position. According to a LinkedIn report, men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.

Taking application materials at face value

Words are not only powerful when you explain a position; they also influence the way you perceive the qualifications of job seekers. As candidates submit their resumes and other application materials, evaluating their skills and experience is more complex than reading a piece of paper. Men and women represent their skills differently; if you’re not reading between the lines, you could eliminate women in favor of equally or less qualified men.

While men tend to overstate their abilities and exaggerate their skills, women are more likely to understate their skills and achievements. Based on application materials, a male candidate may seem more qualified than a female candidate who is equally or more qualified. Don’t just rely on what job seekers tell you about themselves: Follow up with references, and consider using objective skills-based evaluations and assessments to identify skilled candidates.

Making appearance-based decisions

In a recent survey commissioned by Greene King, more than 50% of employers admitted to judging applicants based on their appearance. Although the research mainly focused on features such as visible tattoos, clothes, and hair color, many employers still make appearance-based decisions regarding gender as well.

Keep an open mind about who may be best suited for the job, instead of making appearance-based assumptions before the interview even starts. An interview provides a better representation of a candidate than a resume, and it allows you to get to know them, aiding your decision about who is best for the position. 

TipTip: A phone interview removes some of the appearance factors that can cause our biases to creep in during the early hiring stages. Try asking these questions to screen a candidate in a phone interview.

Tuning out feminine words

In addition to unintentional bias, which can form your expectations, how women talk about themselves in the interview can sway your decisions. When women describe themselves with stereotypically feminine terms in a job interview, they are often seen as less qualified for jobs traditionally held by men than candidates who describe themselves with masculine-coded words.

Create a standard template of hard and soft skills necessary for the job to eliminate bias in the interview. Check off the boxes of said skills throughout the conversation for a more objective selection process.

Brushing off salary negotiations

If you think you base your salaries on experience and skills fairly, think again. We’ve already covered how men are more likely to exaggerate their skills, potentially leading to a higher starting salary, but other factors are at play in the wage gap.

Research published by Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society shows that, when given the chance, women are just as likely as men to negotiate their salary. However, the option of salary negotiation is often not explicitly stated, making women less likely to identify and act on the opportunity.

Instead of cutting costs by paying applicants differently based on their gender or negotiation tactics, use a similar rubric for all candidates when determining fair compensation. Carefully consider salary negotiations, and refer to your chart when in doubt.

Bottom LineBottom Line: Offering fair and competitive compensation to all employees can help eliminate gender bias and improve employee retention.

What is gender bias in hiring?

Gender bias in hiring is the intentional or unintentional act of discriminating against a job applicant based on their gender. The negative impact on cisgender women is commonly held up as the example, although it often affects transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming applicants as well. 

When a recruiter or hiring manager lets gender bias affect their hiring decisions, the organization could ultimately suffer. Common acts of gender bias during the recruitment process include using masculine job descriptions, judging interviewees based on appearance, tuning out feminine language, and offering unequal salaries to men vs. women.

The long-term effects of gender bias in your organization

Gender bias should be avoided at all stages of the employee journey, starting with the recruitment process. These are some long-term effects gender bias can have on your organization:

  • It leads to gender inequality in your organization. If you are biased against women in your hiring process, you will ultimately have fewer women in your company (including leadership positions). Every company should strive for a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace.
  • It perpetuates the pay gap in your company. Sorting women into lower-paying jobs or paying them less for the same job as a man creates a pay gap in an organization and reinforces the overall wage gap. Evaluate employee salaries based on a fair rubric, and give each candidate or employee the same ability to negotiate their salary. [Related article: How Paternity Leave Can Narrow the Gender Pay Gap]
  • It can lead to a discrimination lawsuit. Discrimination is not only morally wrong, but can also land you in some hot water legally. Refusing to hire someone based on their sex or gender identity is unlawful under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If an applicant chooses to take legal action, it could cost you in both finances and your reputation as an employer. All employers should know the applicable employment and anti-discrimination laws and follow them to the letter. 

Train your staff on what gender bias looks like and how to avoid it. This can help you eliminate gender bias from your recruitment process.

Robyn Melhuish contributed to the writing and research in this article.

Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley
business.com Staff
Skye Schooley is a staff writer at business.com and Business News Daily, where she has written more than 200 articles on B2B-focused topics including human resources operations, management leadership, and business technology. In addition to researching and analyzing products that help business owners launch and grow their business, Skye writes on topics aimed at building better professional culture, like protecting employee privacy, managing human capital, improving communication, and fostering workplace diversity and culture.