How we addressed
the unconscious bias

Jul 15 - 2021 | 4 min read

Data revealed that the final interview stage can put female candidates and young mothers at a disadvantage compared to male candidates. This was how we corrected it.

Studies have shown that companies with gender variety in their senior leadership enjoy higher levels of efficiency, innovation and objectivity. They also find it easier to attract new female talent, who look at existing female leaders and believe that they, too, can have opportunities to progress.

It is encouraging that gender diversity remains top of mind for many companies at the moment, because there is still a long way to go. A 2018 study on female leadership by McKinsey & Co. estimates that if companies continue at their current rate of hiring and promoting, the number of women in management will only increase by 1% over the next 10 years. But statistics for the rest of the workforce look more optimistic: from 2014–19, the number of women in Facebook’s technical teams has increased from 15% to 23%, close to 2% every year. Google, likewise, has made similar progress.

Unconscious bias, the major obstacle in hiring.

There are several simple (but not necessarily easy) improvements that a company can make to develop diverse talent or create inclusive leaders. One way is to start with a hiring process free from unconscious bias from the very beginning.

What is unconscious bias? It is a tendency to favour other people who look, think and act like oneself, and it is an instinctive part of human nature. Status quo bias can, likewise, cause hiring managers to pick finalists who have a preference for maintaining the current state of affairs.

Unconscious bias may be an involuntary response but training can help to deliberately catch and stop these thoughts. Processes can also be put in place to reduce bias from the very first glance of the résumé to the final round of interviews.

At The Big Search, we recently discovered how easily unconscious bias can slip into the hiring processes – and how simple it was to correct this.

Case Study: Addressing bias in The Big Search’s hiring process.

We were tasked with building out the Executive team for a digital client, including hiring for a leadership roles of the people and marketing department. Our client emphasised that the searches must be diverse and inclusive. Yet, after the hires were made and we analysed the numbers, we found that while more than 50% (sometimes as high as nearly 75%) of the candidates we presented were female, our client ended up hiring male candidates each time.

We presented this data to our client and they were also confused to why, despite wanting to hire more women, they eventually hired men. We arranged follow-up interviews with the female candidates who were rejected at the last stage. Their replies surprised us. The rapid-fire panel interviews that made up the last stage had put our female candidates at a disadvantage. This format was more suited to a quick, brief and assertive style of communication, which gave highly “masculine” candidates an unfair advantage. Meanwhile, highly “feminine” candidates who preferred a slower, more thoughtful style of communication, seemed less competent. To top it all off, the full-day setup made it harder for parents with young children to attend and took some potentially great candidates out of the race prematurely.

Scientific research has been conducted on the differences in communication styles and its effects on career outcomes, yet this is rarely addressed in practice.

A male style of communication is driven by the exchange of factual information to solve a given problem. This type of communication is direct with limited emotional connotation. On the other hand, a more female version of communication is aimed at building relationships and problem solving with the aid of those relationships. This style of communication includes more listening than “report” communication and involves the inclusion of more personal feelings and past experiences to solve tasks. These data are generalized statements and are not meant to convey that all men fit into one type of communication category and all women into another category but understanding that these two types exist is crucial to a more inclusive and more efficient interviewing process.

The one change we made
to increase inclusive hiring.

After evaluating this feedback with our client, we made one change to the hiring process that made it more inclusive to both parents and candidates with a “feminine”style of communication.

We extended the final stage of panel interviews from one day to two, which allowed each candidate more time to respond to questions instead of only expecting quick replies. This created fairness for both types of communication styles. The two-day structure also gave candidates more flexibility around childcare.

This improvement to the hiring process resulted in more women joining our client’s Executive team.

The work does not stop here.

In this case study, we showed that bias can create a gender imbalance from the very start — the hiring stage. Everyone carries biases but recognising it is the start of overcoming it. In recruitment, a biased process is detrimental to candidates, employees and the organisation. Employers must take on the responsibility to uncover it and address it: the vital work of preventing unconscious bias can lead to a thriving, diverse workplace with more fairness, better judgement and equality.

Changing the way the world selects its leaders.
A TBS company.