Bias in the Hiring Process

Last month, I wrote about how gender bias in job descriptions can dissuade women from applying for positions. Not surprisingly, bias infects later stages of the hiring process as well. Numerous studies have demonstrated that gender and racial biases can dramatically affect how employers assess candidates’ application materials, leading employers to favor white, male applicants over equally qualified women and people of color.

In a groundbreaking study exposing the prevalence of race discrimination in the labor market, scholars Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan mailed out nearly 5,000 fake resumes in response to help-wanted ads and then measured which resumes were selected for callbacks. The study found that the same resume was approximately 50 percent more likely to yield a callback for an interview if it had a stereotypically white-sounding name like Emily Walsh or Greg Baker as compared to a stereotypically African-American-sounding name like Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones. According to Bertrand and Mullainathan, this 50 percent gap means that a “White name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience on a resume.” Significantly, Bertrand and Mullainathan found that the racial gap in callback rates was uniform across the industries and occupations covered in the experiment and that employers who listed themselves as Equal Opportunity Employers in their help-wanted ads discriminated just as much as other employers.

Other studies have highlighted the impact of gender bias in the hiring process. In one study, science professors were asked to assess a fictitious student application for a laboratory manager position. Half of the professors received the application with the name “John” attached, whereas the other half received an identical application with the name “Jennifer” attached. The results were striking—the faculty participating in the study assessed the female applicant as significantly less competent and hireable than the identical male candidate, and they were less willing to offer career mentoring to the female student. Moreover, the professors recommended a lower starting salary for the female applicant. On average, “Jennifer” was offered nearly $4,000 (or 13%) less per year than her male counterpart. In another study, where managers had no information about the candidates other than their appearance and gender, both male and female managers were twice as likely to hire men over women to perform a simple mathematical task.

On the flipside, several studies based on real-life scenarios have demonstrated the power of anonymous (or “blind”) selection processes in eradicating discrimination. A 2012 study of Swedish data on actual job applications revealed that anonymous hiring practices increased the likelihood that women and ethnic minorities would reach the interview stage. Symphony orchestras have proven to be a ripe area for studying the effects of anonymous hiring practices. Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, symphony orchestras began using a blind audition process, whereby candidates would play from behind a screen, thus concealing their identities from their evaluators. In a 2000 study, economists Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse analyzed the effect of this anonymous hiring practice. They found that, even when the screen was just used for a preliminary round, it had a significant impact—women musicians were fifty percent more likely to move on to a second round of evaluation after a blind audition as compared to a nonblind one.

Technology offers an easy mechanism for employers to extend the reach of blind hiring past the context of orchestra auditions. Among the resources now available to employers is an app called Blendoor, which just launched a couple of weeks ago. The app was created by Stephanie Lampkin, a black, female engineer who, in spite of her Stanford and MIT education and impressive coding skills (she learned to code at age 13!), encountered significant difficulties in gaining entry into the tech industry. Informed by research on the impact of gender and racial biases in the hiring process, Lampkin developed Blendoor, which removes job applicants’ names, photos, and any indicators of age. The app instead shows only the applicants’ skills, work experience, and education. Then, like Tinder, candidates can swipe when they see a job that they like and employers can swipe to select a candidate they like. It remains to be seen whether this app will significantly increase women and people of color’s chances of advancing to the next stages of the hiring process. However, if the studies above are any indication, this app holds much promise for reducing discrimination in the hiring process.

Melinda Koster

Melinda Koster has been fighting for social justice on a range of fronts throughout her career, including working with day laborers and domestic workers, immigrant youth in the juvenile justice system, and women seeking to advance reproductive rights.  She currently works in the NY office of Sanford Heisler, LLP .  She was a figure skater growing up (jumps and everything) but now spends more time unabashedly watching trashy-ish tv.

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