Have you ever taken Karate? I took two classes, not enough to retain any physical benefit, but I learned one thing I still keep with me 30 years later: when we take advantage of natural forces to create change, change happens more smoothly and comfortably. Recent research out of Harvard may just hold the key to using our natural human biases to help dissolve the glass ceiling and even address the pay gap. Human resources managers take notice. You can make the difference on this one.
Human Bias Is Inevitable
I believe we’re in a post-sexist world where outright sexism and racism – the conscious effort to limit someone’s chances of success due to their physical packaging – is on the wane. That said, there is plenty of bias that unfairly disadvantages women and minorities from reaching the heights of economic, political and media power. This is something of a conundrum because it means we’re up against unconscious cultural bias, and if you’ve ever tried to change a bad habit personally, much less culturally, you know how challenging that can be.
Part of the tragedy of unconscious bias is that those who suffer its consequences also inadvertently end up contributing to the problem. For example, women who speak up and promote themselves often get ahead, but many of us don’t do this because it “feels wrong.” Talking about our accomplishments feels immodest and aggressive (i.e., unladylike) so we don’t do it and end up contributing to others’ unconscious biases that say ‘women don’t accomplish as much as men (who self-promote more easily) or aren’t assertive enough to excel.’
This kind of bias extends to our human stereotypes about leaders – the kind of leaders who run the world. Research from Northwestern in 2011 measured what we already know: our cultural stereotypes of leaders – among men and women – are male. While this is changing, and there’s plenty of evidence that women make excellent leaders and are good for business. The problem is that our stereotypes aren’t changing very fast.
Would You Change It If You Could?
Earlier this year, Harvard released a working paper entitled When Performance Trumps Gender Bias: Joint Versus Separate Evaluation. Despite the wonky title, the findings are rather mind blowing. The researchers measured gender bias in making hiring, assignment and promotion decisions. While past studies have masked gender identity from evaluators, this study made no attempt to hide it. Rather, the variable they manipulated was whether employees were evaluated individually or in a group, based on past performance.
The results not only confirmed dramatic gender bias, in favor of males, but showed a 62% differential between how low-performing males were evaluated individually as compared to group evaluations. (Low-performing males were hired 65% of the time when evaluated individually, but only 3% of the time when evaluated among other male and female candidates.)
The researchers attribute this dramatic difference to the theory that when evaluating an individual, their past performance is a fact out of context so decision-makers call on other inputs, such as gender stereotypes, to help make the decision. In a group, however, past performances between candidates can be compared and becomes a more relevant factor, neutralizing gender bias as a decision criteria.
Given this information, why would anyone ever make an out-of-context, individual, hiring decision again?
Well, of course there are many good reasons not to make every hiring decision a joint evaluation, including the fact that sometimes it’s simply not practical. This research was conducted with college students in a lab, not a corporate environment, so it’s not clear the results would translate 100% to the real world. However, humans are humans and if the college students – hiring managers of tomorrow – have these biases in the lab they’re probably going to have them out of the lab as well, so this approach is definitely worth exploring.
Human Resources Professionals, Take Notice
I hope Human Resources Departments around the world sit up and take notice of this research and make sincere efforts to put joint evaluation procedures in place wherever feasible. Even if the real world results are off by 50%, companies could save themselves from hiring underperforming males 31% of the time.
What’s you’re experience? How realistic do you believe this research is? How practical is the joint evaluation technique for hiring? If you’re in HR, what will you do with this information? If you’re not in HR, will you share this with them?
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