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This article was in the June 2023, all female authors edition of Thomson Reuters Cost Management publication

In the last 3 years we’ve experienced a global pandemic that caused mass layoffs, followed by rapid growth and increased hiring and now, layoffs in the tech space. Even with the layoffs that we’re seeing, a scan of any job board will show positions that have been posted for months at a time. I’ve seen jobs that are still active on company’s websites that are currently celebrating their one-year birthday.

LinkedIn is filled with posts from discouraged job seekers who have applied for multiple jobs without a single reply. Companies are still hiring, candidates are still applying and yet positions remain vacant. How do we fix this?

When I’m counting how long a position has been open by months or years instead of days, there are a few things that I consider. Whether we need the position, what our sourcing and recruiting strategy has been and how engaged the hiring manager has been are all top of the list. However, most of the time when we can’t fill a position, taking a hard look at the requirements of the job and the interview process are the most telling.

I often find that the biases of the team are leading to candidates being declined at the hiring manager resume review stage or that candidates may make it through a few interviews but they aren’t making it to an offer stage. There are plenty of biases to cover but, for the sake of this article, we’ll focus on gender bias.

Gender bias has a long history in education and the workplace and we still see these beliefs and behaviors today. Some of these biases are unconscious and occur without malicious intent but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous when we are looking at the health of our organizations and teams. Tech and manufacturing companies are no stranger to the difficulties of hiring women as the tech industry has consistently averaged less than 30% female employees. **

So just how is gender bias displayed and how is it impacting our recruiting process?

There are multiple biases that could come into play but some of the most common that I see in my recruiting and leadership coaching practice are Similarity Bias, Variable Questioning Bias and Stereotyping Bias.

Similarity bias occurs when we look for candidates that are similar to ourselves. When managers want to recruit out of their alma mater only or want to target people who have taken a similar career path as themselves, candidates who don’t fit the mold are rejected. This can impact gender diversity in our hiring process, especially when we look at some of the tech and science fields that are more likely to be male dominated.

Another way similarity bias shows itself in our process is when we talk about the profiles that we’re looking for or the potential candidates we might find. I use gender neutral language when we’re talking about what a candidate profile will look like as we’re recruiting for a position. However, some of my male hiring managers will often say ‘He’ when referring to hypothetical candidates. And yes, female hiring managers say ‘He’ sometimes as well. By using male pronouns, we’re accepting unconscious (or not so unconscious) bias into the hiring process and creating a hurdle for female identifying candidates to overcome before we’ve even posted the position.

Variable questioning bias is present in our hiring practices when we ask different questions for different candidates. When I’m looking at a hiring manager’s notes on their interviews, I can spot discrepancies in questions based on the type of feedback they share. When hiring managers start speaking about the potential of a male candidate versus the skill level of a female or non-binary candidate, I can tell that they went off script. By asking different questions for different candidates, we’re not making a straight comparison of their skills and abilities.

The last type of bias that we’ll cover is Stereotyping. Stereotyping occurs whenever we make an assumption based on our own beliefs. Even in 2023, there are stereotypes that people that can become pregnant will have upcoming leave or family obligations that will prevent them from performing the job. This discriminatory thinking harms candidates and employees of any gender by assuming that female presenting candidates are the only candidates concerned about family obligations.

Regardless of how diverse we think our hiring practice is, there are going to be biases that creep in. How we choose to learn from and address them is what sets us apart as business professionals.

Below are some of the ways that we can improve our hiring practices to remove gender bias:

Create a Culture that Accepts Diversity

From an organizational standpoint, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training is the bare minimum that a company can do to eliminate bias in the interview process. DE&I training shouldn’t be a one-time training session or even one that is done on an annual basis. Shifting unconscious biases cannot be done in a 30-minute online training session.

Too often, companies roll out diversity initiatives, train everyone on what DE&I is and then sit back and expect the training to remove biases. If DE&I is a checklist item, you will continue to see positions remain open, a higher percentage of male candidates hired and discrimination in your hiring process.

To create a culture that accepts diversity, organizations need to create an ongoing culture of learning and development. DE&I needs to be integrated into the core of a company to truly be successful. Leaders of an organization must continuously learn and advocate for the DE&I values of the company. In my practice, I recommend that DE&I leadership training is done as a progressive and ongoing professional development process with continuous coaching. Again, we can’t shift our beliefs in one training session, we must continue to learn and incorporate what we learn into our processes. The only way to overcome Stereotyping biases is to educate and then reinforce a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Gender Neutral Language

One of the ways that we can incorporate DE&I values into our hiring practices is to use gender neutral language in our job postings and when talking about potential candidates. Going into the hiring process without using ‘He’ when talking about candidates or the candidate profile will help counteract similarity bias as well as the predisposition to favor male candidates.

People who identify as female are more likely to apply only when they meet all of the posted requirements on a job description whereas people who identify as male are more likely to apply to positions that they see as promotional opportunities. When we create job postings that have male favoring language, we’re just further lowering our non-male applications and creating the perception that our company doesn’t embrace diversity.

Blind Recruitment

Companies can also implement blind recruitment practices which involve removing candidate’s names and identifying information off of their resume before screening or submitting candidates to a hiring manager. This may take some technology backing but, by reviewing resumes without knowing the gender of the candidate, we can focus on the background and experience of candidates without unconscious bias creeping in.

By eliminating bias in the screening process, we’re creating an equal opportunity for all candidates to be assessed based on their skill set and experience versus their gender. This can help remove Similarity and Stereotyping biases at the beginning of the process.

Interview Process Improvements: Standard Questions and Diverse Interview Panels

Even with creating a culture that embraces diversity, cleaning up your posting and internal language and removing identifying information off of resumes, you still won’t eliminate bias and fill positions if you don’t tighten up your interview process. Variability questioning bias rears its ugly head in this step of the hiring process.

Have you ever been in an interview where you’re sure that the manager or interviewer is looking at your resume for the first time? Maybe you’re the manager that went from meeting to meeting and opened up the candidate’s resume for the first time as you walked into the interview room. We’ve all been there. However, without a standard interview process, we’re leaving ourselves open to bias.

Each candidate should go through the same interview process. If your process is: Recruiter Phone Screen, Hiring Manager Interview, Panel Interview, but for one candidate, you skip a panel interview or change up the interview panel, you are creating an opportunity for discrimination. Create a standard interview process and stick with it.

Next, your interview teams should consist of diverse representation as well. Interview panels should have a mix of genders so that candidates have an opportunity to talk to someone that they can relate to.

I recently had a woman decline a leadership role for a position that I was recruiting for. Her response when I asked her why she was declining? (Hint- It wasn’t money or the fact that the position was onsite). She declined because the team consistently talked about leadership opportunities and what her runway would look like but everyone she spoke to was male. She stated that even a female leader from another department would have been impactful as she felt that the diversity was lacking based on who she met in the interview process.

Lastly, one of the most important pieces of the interview process is creating standard interview questions and scorecards for all candidates. Without guidelines, interviewers can go rogue and ask questions they really shouldn’t be or assess candidates improperly due to not having standard benchmarks.

Remember when I mentioned that we often give feedback on male identifying candidates based on their potential and female identifying candidates based on their skills? This is where that happens. I have reviewed feedback from interviewers that dug down into the very depths of a female identifying candidate’s skill set, complete with code samples, and I’ve seen notes from interviewers on male identifying candidates that simply said: Lots of potential! Aptitude to take on higher level tasks! Make an offer! And yes, those two candidates were applying for the same position.

Having standard questions that are asked of all candidates helps to remove the variability biases that appear in our interview process. Knowing what questions to ask and to be prepared can also impact some of the Similarity Bias that occurs as well.

One example of this comes from my own interviewing experience. I was interviewing with a male interviewer who hadn’t read my resume, didn’t have standard questions and interviewed in a very casual conversational style. He admittedly wasn’t prepared and blundered through the interview, asking me questions full of sports metaphors and talked extensively about games I hadn’t seen. I don’t particularly care for sports and even with years of working in male dominated industries, he used a few phrases that I couldn’t decipher on the spot.

This left me with a few thoughts after the interview. First, my potential new boss just winged the interview with me. Is that how he operated? If so, I’m an over-preparer and that wasn’t going to work for me. Second, was he grading me on how much I knew about the basketball game the previous night? It sure felt like it because that’s all he talked about. There was no way I was going to stand out to him if there was a male identifying candidate that could relate to him. Had he prepared standard questions, we would have had a much better conversation and I would have left that interview with a positive impression of him and the company. However, I left that interview knowing that I wasn’t being asked the same questions as the next candidate and that I wasn’t receiving a fair chance at the role.

Gender bias still exists in our hiring practices and if we want to create strong, diverse and sustainable teams, we have to accept our own biases and take accountability for them. If we continue to make it difficult for people who identify as female or non-binary candidates to pursue new opportunities, we will remain in the cycle of opening positions just to count the months that they remain open.

Adopting a culture where diversity is welcome and celebrated, identifying our own biases and tackling them head on and improving how we identify top talent for our organizations will have a lasting impact on our culture and teams. Your employees will thank you when those positions close and they’re no longer carrying the workload of two people.

** LinkedIn, Women in Technology: The Problematic Statistics & The Change Required. Author: Flo Nicolas, Esq

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For years now, my dream has been to work in a capacity to help and support others in their career goals. After nearly 15 years of working in talent attraction and leadership roles, I watched as the pandemic resulted in massive layoffs only to be followed by a hiring frenzy unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Now we’re back to large layoffs, especially in the tech industry. The last three years has been enough to make anyone’s head spin.

My heart broke as I watched friends, family and my professional network struggle to navigate the ever-changing job market. Some would land 4-5 offers without even trying, others were applying for months without so much as an interview. Meanwhile, as I was recruiting in one of the most challenging markets I’ve ever experienced, hiring managers still asked for ‘Purple Squirrels’ and ‘Unicorns’. We wouldn’t even have applicants and yet, here we were… waiting for golden Unicorns to pop up somewhere.

In my personal opinion, purple squirrels exist. You can find squirrels but a purple one is rare. Unicorns, they just don’t exist naturally. However, with some coaching and preparation, you can create shining, stand out ‘Unicorns’ that will impress even the most difficult of hiring managers.

I set off on my mission to help job seekers and professionals become Unicorns. I wanted to guide people through their career search so that they felt confident and supported through one of the most challenging life events that we navigate. I also wanted to help companies grow their own Unicorns internally with coaching and leadership development. All too often when I worked as an internal recruiter, I would hear why we couldn’t promote someone internally and it was usually because they didn’t have leadership experience. I’ve seen a huge disconnect in internal and external hiring practices. I want to change that.

I chose the name Unicorn Recruitment & Career Services because I wanted to empower employees and job seekers. My goal is for professionals to know their value and advocate for themselves and for hiring managers to see all of the amazing Unicorns that are out there.

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