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Updated Apr 22, 2024

The Hidden Ways Gender Bias Can Sabotage Recruitment

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.

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Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
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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 percent 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.

Did You Know?Did you know
When choosing what to write in a job description, verbiage and specificity matter. As reported by the World Economic Forum, only 6 percent of qualified women will apply for an expert job opportunity with a vague description. Compare this to the 22 percent of qualified men applying for a similar opportunity.

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 present 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 an employment 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.

Don’t judge a book by its cover when hiring. Appearances can be deceptive. Focus instead on the interview, as it will reveal more about the potential employee than their resume. Use it to understand them better and figure out who’s the right fit for the job.

TipBottom line
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.

A Pew Research Center survey found that, when given the chance, women are almost just as likely as men (32 percent vs. 28 percent) to negotiate their salary. However, that doesn’t necessarily lead to the same results. After asking for higher pay, women are more likely than men (38 percent vs. 31 percent) to only receive what they were initially offered.

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. 

Hiring the best person for the job should be your only goal. Don’t fall into the trap of gender bias, it can harm your business. This can happen by using job descriptions that sound more suited for men, favoring candidates based on looks, disregarding feminine language, and offering different salaries to men and women for the same job.

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 limits your talent pool. When recruiters or hiring managers give in to bias, you risk losing the best candidate for the job. A bad hire can negatively impact your organization, so it’s important to evaluate every candidate fairly.
  • 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: Creating an Employee Benefits Package]
  • 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 this article.

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Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
Skye Schooley is a dedicated business professional who is especially passionate about human resources and digital marketing. For more than a decade, she has helped clients navigate the employee recruitment and customer acquisition processes, ensuring small business owners have the knowledge they need to succeed and grow their companies. In recent years, Schooley has enjoyed evaluating and comparing HR software and other human resources solutions to help businesses find the tools and services that best suit their needs. With a degree in business communications, she excels at simplifying complicated subjects and interviewing business vendors and entrepreneurs to gain new insights. Her guidance spans various formats, including newsletters, long-form videos and YouTube Shorts, reflecting her commitment to providing valuable expertise in accessible ways.
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