Gender Bias in Recruitment: our Responsibility as an Industry

My business partner and I started Sagent Recruitment a few months ago with a view to promote strong values in engineering recruitment. After many years managing recruitment businesses, we found it refreshing going back to the desk, dealing with clients and candidates on a daily basis whilst working assignments.

Whilst somethings have changed since we last worked as consultants, recruitment is still a people business, where building strong relationships with both clients and candidates will help you become successful. What has changed is the impact of technology on the daily life of a recruiter. Technology has crept in at every level of the process, making recruitment more process-driven in a drive for increased efficiency. Counterintuitively, I argue that the increased use of technology has also made our industry more prone to bias.

How is that possible? Surely, a solid, technology-driven process increases objectivity and ensures that human bias is not taken into account in the selection process. Whilst I haven’t conducted any statistically valid analysis on this issue (although it would certainly be very interesting), I would like to share my experience  based findings with you.

Many large organisations post their roles via a portal to their preferred recruitment partners, eliminating the need for multiple conversations with different agencies. The agencies will use the job description given by the customer to advertise the vacancy themselves. A lot of recruitment these days is exactly that: posting vacancies on job boards and portals, and waiting for responses to come back.

This leads me to my first finding: women don’t respond as readily to job advertisements as men. That doesn’t mean however that they are not looking for new roles. When moving away from the reactive use of job boards, and using different methods such as proactively networking amongst engineers in specific areas, we find the number of relevant women for a role is much closer to the industry percentage of women in the industry.

Through our work targeting women’s engineering networks and actively promoting the women’s cause to our clients and candidates, we can usually produce a shortlist with a much greater number of women than the industry average. So we infer that women are looking for career opportunities to the same extent as men — they just don’t respond to the ads in the same numbers.

Why is that? From my conversations with women, and reading the relevant research, I believe that the job descriptions and advertisements are written with the incumbent in mind, and use a language that doesn’t appeal to women. Many advertisements aimed at engineers are clearly (albeit unconsciously) written with men in mind, and whilst a female engineer might objectively have the necessary skill set to apply, she might very well feel that the company advertising is not the right environment for her.  The language used might be overly masculine, and therefore suggest an environment aimed at men. Research also suggests that women tend to apply only for a role when they feel that they have all the necessary skills required in the job advertisement, further decreasing the chances of female response to the advertisement.

My second finding is more worrying, however. We all have unconscious bias that we have to fight every day. When talking to engineers or assessing profiles and CVs, we make judgements about people that might not be accurate. Our judgments are biased, and in engineering this often means gender bias. As founders of an organisation which prides itself in promoting the advancement of female engineers, we are very conscious of this bias and address it regularly within the company, conducting internal workshops to ensure that we have a thorough understanding of our own bias and assumptions.

The problem of unconscious bias is backed up by extensive research. Consider this experiment:

Researchers made up applications in which one of the two strongest candidates had better educational qualifications but less industry experience, while the other strong candidate had experience but a less impressive educational background. When the sex of the candidate wasn’t mentioned, 76% of male undergraduates who participated in the experiment strongly preferred the better educated candidate. Similarly, three quarters of participants preferred a better educated male candidate over a less educated female candidate with more industry experience. You would expect the participants to still favour the better educated candidate when the sexes are reversed. Yet they don’t! Only 43% of participants choose a female candidate with better education. Yet the participants were convinced they weren’t sexist. Instead, when asked to explain their choice, they changed the criteria and cited experience as more important when the better educated candidate was a man.

Real life is obviously not as simple as a laboratory controlled environment. But it is important that we are aware of our own often unconscious bias, and we should be able to address this problem with our customers to ensure that female candidates get the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in the last few months is that recruiters have the power to address the gender imbalance in male dominated areas such as engineering, through changing their attraction methods on the one hand, and addressing their own and their customers’ gender bias on the other hand.  It is not the quickest way to recruit candidates, but as an industry we should take our wider role in society seriously and be committed to this cause.