Not you, right? You would not choose between two candidates with the same qualifications and experience based on the name shown on the top of the resume. Or would you? Well, this study from Stanford University shows that many people would.

Scientists were asked to hire a lab manager and in the process, they had to evaluate identical resumes of a candidate named either “Jennifer” or “John.” The results were alarming. They showed that the decision makers—male and female scientists who are trained to think objectively—did not evaluate the resume purely on competence or capability. Despite both candidates having the same qualifications and experience, John was deemed more qualified and was offered the job. Jennifer was perceived as less competent and the few people that would hire her offered her on average $4K less.

While we cling to the belief that we choose candidates for new positions or promotions based on merit, statistics around gender gap show a different story. While women account for half of the workforce and are over-represented in tertiary education, they remain under-represented in countless industries and senior roles and in many instances, they earn less.

Our recent study on gender pay gap shows that men dominate in highly paid functions and sectors —85% of technical jobs in 11 of the world’s largest tech companies are held males. Meanwhile, women cluster in lower-paid functions and sectors: 80% of the world’s garment workers and 70% of its hospitality and tourism workers are female. And even in these industries, men hold the vast majority of management and board roles.

A recent Korn Ferry report shows that Women make up only 10.2 per cent of all directors in the Asia Pacific region, meaning that the region is lagging substantially behind major economies. Though the business case for women on boards is simple: the report found that companies with boards that were at least 10% female in general showed a 3.6% higher return on equity.

Policy makers and organisations have put a lot of focus in recent years in creating the conditions to close the wage gap and break the glass ceiling. There are plenty of high-impact best practice to move diversity and inclusion forward. Quotas, parental leave, child care policies, flexible work arrangements. But these initiatives have produced small gains - the gender pay gap has only declined slightly in the last five years, currently sitting at 18 percent.

The reasons why employment outcomes for women tend to suffer are complex. Economists have recently measured the factors that impact on gender gap and have found that social and structural factors- like the differences in occupation, education or experience as well as access to paid leave and child care - only account for 60 percent of the wage gap. The remaining 40 percent of the gap cannot be explained by these elements and they argue that gender discrimination, conscious or otherwise, is one of the culprits. The unfortunate reality is that sex-related expectations and stereotypes is a major stumbling block for gender equality.

The Stanford experiment shows us that there is a silent, yet, powerful force, behind our hiring decisions – unconscious gender bias. We all have it. It’s present everywhere and affects everyone, not only women. That’s one of the reasons why professions such as nursing and childcare attract very few males.

Why does this happen?

Unconscious bias is a difficult notion for many to accept, especially for those who consider themselves unbiased. Bias in all its forms—based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or any other group affiliation—is more readily seen as a deliberate choice than as an unintentional predisposition. Nevertheless, research indicates that we human beings innately perceive anyone different from us as a threat because our brain has an evolutionary requirement to do so. Hence, categorising people is actually an important evolutionary tool. It’s a quick way for our brains to recognise friends from foes.

The problem with this is that we have a collective tendency of homogenising others into a set of rigid rules or a particular set of perceived qualities and when they don’t fit that mold, our brains complain —the concepts we created don’t make sense anymore and that makes us feel uncomfortable. For example, we identify males with attributes like power, assertiveness, independence and leadership. We like and respect them when they embody these qualities. Typical female attributes include nurturing, caring, emotional, supportive and we expect women to behave as such. Unsurprisingly, research shows that when women are competent or successful, and display the attributes we associate with the male figure, we find them less likeable.

We like to think such cliches are past their use-by date but there are many blind studies that prove what when gender is concealed, it significantly increases the likelihood of a woman being selected. If you are not familiar with the “Heidi vs. Howard” case study, it’s worth checking this quick video in which Sheryl Sandberg and Oprah highlight how likeability and success are negatively correlated for women.

What can you do to address unconscious gender bias?

While organisations cannot be responsible for the stereotypes that are so pervasive in society, they can take steps to counter gender bias. In fact, many have tried that through diversity programs. But in our experience, most of these programs haven’t moved the dial in closing the gap due to several reasons, including the fact that organisations implement initiatives before anyone has worked out what the problem is. The first step to make headway is to have an honest look at their employees perceptions of gender identity and how their biases are affecting the company’s culture and systems.

While there is no silver bullet to overcome unconscious bias, these recommendations will help women realise their full potential in the workforce:

  • As a HR professional or business leader, keep checking for conscious and subconscious bias in your own approach and others’—and empower people to challenge it when they find it.
  • Check in regularly to make sure the right things are happening:
    • Are people using objective selection criteria and “name-blind” processes?
    • Are diverse teams interviewing candidates, and are psychometric tests in place to measure potential and soft skills?
    • Has your organisation eliminated subtle bias, such as job descriptions that unnecessarily demand foreign travel, overseas placement or unrealistic lists of expectations that they cry out, “Unicorn wanted”?
  • Hunt out and challenge assumptions about fit—especially when it comes to leadership styles.
  • Champion female role models, but be careful about whom you choose: A board member who hasn’t taken a holiday with her family for years isn’t going to be a great role model. Find women who are relatable and realistic.
  • Promote different leadership styles in your team and in the organisation: With men still holding most senior roles, it’s unsurprising that organisations prefer masculine leadership styles and behaviors. But when women use these, they’re seen as demanding, not assertive. So they get caught in a double bind.

Helping women progress means dismantling or adjusting the structures and the cultures that constrain them and companies that get this right will gain access to a pool of talented candidates that have been for long being under-used.

The recommendations on this post were extracted from the Korn Ferry report, The real gap: fixing the gender pay divide. Download the report for insights on how to create a more equitable organisation.

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