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Sexism in Hiring Affects Women AND Men: Steps Employers Can Take To Reduce Discrimination

Key findings from a field experiment that show both women and men face discrimination when they apply to jobs associated with the other sex.

Most people recognize that gender-based discrimination during the hiring process can negatively affect women’s careers. My recently published study in Social Forces shows that discrimination can also limit men’s careers. Using a field experiment design, I created similar résumés for fictitious male and female applicants and applied them to 3,000 real job ads. Each job ad received a male resume and a female resume that were comparable in experience and education. I then recorded the callbacks they received from employers for an interview invite.

The findings are stark. Female applicants experienced significant discrimination in male-dominated, working-class jobs. For example, in janitorial and manufacturing positions, male applicants received 44% more callbacks than female applicants. Notably, discrimination against female applicants was even higher when ads for these jobs also emphasized attributes culturally stereotyped as masculine, such as mechanical aptitude, independence, and physical strength.

Male applicants, too, faced discrimination when they applied to female-dominated jobs, with discrimination occurring in white-collar and working-class sectors. For example, in human resources and administrative support positions (i.e., white-collar female-dominated jobs), female applicants received 52% more callbacks than male applicants for interviews. Likewise, I found discrimination was even more pronounced in female-dominated jobs when the job ads also emphasized attributes that people still stereotypically associate with women such as being friendly, organized, and cooperative.

Why does discrimination occur?

In early hiring decisions, employers often have limited information on job seekers. They usually base judgments off of only what can be gleaned from an applicant’s resume.  Accordingly, employers may fill in other missing information using gender and related stereotypes. Although gender stereotypes have weakened in recent decades, studies show that people still have preconceived notions on the suitability and appropriateness of jobs for each gender. Research also shows that people still associate stereotyped feminine attributes (such as nurturance and friendly dispositions) with women and stereotyped masculine attributes (such as leadership and mechanical aptitude) with men. Thus, these stereotypes are activated when employers are hiring for jobs that are predominately held by one gender or when job ads emphasize attributes typically associated with one gender.  Unfortunately, these biases lead employers to steer men and women to different, and often unequal, jobs.

Indeed, it is important to note that discrimination against men, though harmful, is typically not as costly as the discrimination against women. This is because female-dominated jobs tend to pay less than comparable male-dominated jobs, even when skill, training and education is comparable. Thus, barring men’s entrance into lower-paying jobs is likely not going to have the same costly wage effects on men’s careers, like it would for barring women from higher-paying male-dominated jobs.

What can we do to reduce discrimination?

Ambiguity and subjectivity in hiring and promotions is a real problem. Although many employers have turned to unconscious bias training and education, research is mixed on the effectiveness of this type of training. Even if these trainings do produce positive results (i.e., reductions in biases), the positive effects are typically short-lasting and thus are not necessarily long-term solutions. Although it would be ideal to root out all unconscious biases, and I still encourage employers to become more educated about biases, research suggests that designing evaluative processes in ways that limit the chance biases can creep in is likely more effective in reducing discrimination.

In terms of hiring, employers can do a few things to standardize their hiring process. Employers can create concrete evaluative criteria for the requirements for job seekers and ensure that those requirements are applied to every applicant equally. Employers can also create blind resume screening tools that would not show the gender of the applicant to the hiring manager. I caution hiring managers to be thoughtful about the type of requirements used for these tools and ensure that they do not have disparate impacts on one gender over the other. Employers can and should use less gender-language in their job ads that may be subconsciously steering hiring managers to select particular genders for certain jobs. Hiring managers can very easily check whether their job ad is gendered by using this online checker, which evaluates job ads for the presence of masculine- or feminine-typed language.

By taking thoughtful steps on ways to minimize biases in the hiring process, men and women should both be freer to pursue jobs they desire and excel at.

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