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.

Those who can, do…

My last blog sparked an interesting debate in one of the LinkedIn groups. Many people commented that the level of knowledge a recruiter has is more important than gender to determine competence. I agree that knowledge and understanding of engineering is important. Some commentators pointed out that the author of these blogs doesn’t have an engineering degree, and can therefore not be a competent engineering recruiter.

True, I have a degree in Economics and a Masters in Law and Economics. I started my recruitment career in finance recruitment, in which I was successful for many years before moving into engineering recruitment.

I have worked with many excellent recruiters over the year. They have many things in common: a good brain and a desire to learn, excellent listening skills to really understand what the hiring manager and the candidate are looking for, and a willingness to question in order to increase their understanding. Some of the excellent recruiters I have worked with did not have a degree in their area of specialisation, many did.

I personally do not believe that a degree or experience in engineering is necessary to become a great engineering recruiter. I appreciate that having a different background is a handicap, and it will take a while to build up enough knowledge and understanding of your chosen area within engineering. A curious and intelligent recruiter can achieve this. An outstanding recruiter – in any specialisation – needs qualities over and above knowledge of that field. Candidates do not always realise the communication skills and tenacity required to serve the interests of someone considering a career move. Many large organisations have an automated applicant tracking system (ATS) in place these days. Recruiters are required to find new vacancies and job descriptions through the system, and to submit candidates and receive feedback the same way. Human interaction and communication with the hiring manager is often impossible. A recruiter whose only tool is his understanding and knowledge of engineering will very quickly hit a brick wall when trying to understand the details of the job description, how that role fits into the project or company, and will struggle to get meaningful feedback for the candidate who applied. A professional recruiter will know how to break through the wall and communicate with the hiring community. He or she will be able to get meaningful feedback from a hiring manager to pass on to the candidate before or after the interview. I firmly believe that this can add more value to the candidate for future applications, interviews and even for future career decision.

A great engineering recruiter is an agent. In professional sports, players have agents representing their interests. Whilst these agents will sometimes be ex-professional players, more often they will have a background in law, accountancy or PR. Professional sports people understand that they need people with different skill sets from their own to represent their interest. A good sports agent will be passionate about the sport they work in, have a thorough understanding of the game, and know what skills the various clubs are hiring. They will also be able to advise the player about career steps over and above short term financial reward, and negotiate a contract in the best interest of the player.

Ok, so those who can, do. What do you really want your recruiter to be good at? Do you need another technical sounding board or do you want expert advice about your career opportunities?

Are we obsessed with social media?

When I started my first job in recruitment back in 1995, I received an induction training on candidate screening, candidate interviews, taking a job order from a client etc. Each module of the  training had a personal interaction between two people at its heart, and we talked a lot about ‘the art of conversation’. In the candidate screening process, we focused on the candidate’s motivation as much as on their technical skillset. Similarly, we were taught to always have a conversation with the hiring manager when taking a job order or presenting candidates, to understand exactly what they value in a prospective employee.

When I look at the training programme that consultants starting out in recruitment receive these days, I notice that a lot of emphasis is placed on the ability to source and network for candidates on job boards, LinkedIn and other social media. The recruitment industry seems to accept that the consultants with access to the newest tools, the best understanding of Boolean searches and the largest network on LinkedIn will be the most successful.

The result? We do not value the art of conversation with candidates and clients anymore, and don’t train our consultants to have them. A lot of my fellow recruitment directors and business owners complain that their offices feel like  data centres, with consultants typing away on their keyboards instead of talking to clients and candidates.

We can have any number of connections on LinkedIn or friends on Facebook, and feel very productive and busy without actually being effective. The ease of clicking a link and virtually connecting with someone, or getting a colleague to ‘like’ a post, or finding you have another Twitter follower, is less than half the task: every connection gained through social media should be developed through actual, personal interaction – or you’re kidding yourself as to its actual value to your network.

Consider this:

A good friend of mine is not on LinkedIn. He is an accountant and director in one of the well known London accountancy and consultancy firms. He is well qualified and respected in his profession. He is also not happy at his existing firm and I am certain that he would consider a new opportunity if someone would approach him. Is he the exception? Possibly, but he is also an excellent candidate who could be an exclusive candidate and a great placement for a proactive recruitment consultant. Even though I acknowledge that the majority of professionals are on LinkedIn, not everyone uses the site as enthusiastically as a recruiter. Our candidates’ profile might not be up to date, and he might only use the site occasionally, thereby missing opportunities to show up in our searches or responding to our targeted advertisements. 

Whilst I appreciate that social media can be a fantastic tool to source and communicate with candidates, I also firmly believe that it does not replace the art of conversation. As long as conversations are still part of the hiring process through the job interview, recruiters would do well to use the same methodology in their work practices.