Despite many efforts to make workplaces more equitable, women are still frequently discriminated against at work. Companies run by women are judged more harshly on ethical failings, for instance, and women are more likely to be lied to in performance reviews. This discrimination doesn’t just happen in the workplace: it can happen before someone is even employed. A study from last year, for example, found that Black women with natural hair are seen as less competent and professional than their White counterparts when interviewing for jobs.
Now a new study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, has taken a look at what could be scuppering women’s chances even before they get to the interview stage. The team, led by Brian J Lucas from Cornell University, argues that in organisations where recruitment takes place on an informal basis, via colleague recommendations or other word-of-mouth networks, changes need to be made to the shortlisting process. When shortlists are longer, the results suggest, women are more likely to be seriously considered.
The first few studies looked at how longer shortlists might impact gender representation. Participants imagined being a filmmaker, and were asked to draw up a shortlist of actors to appear in their upcoming action film. In the first stage, participants gave just three suggestions, before being instructed to give three more — the hypothesis being that more women would be listed during the second stage than the first. The results showed that the number of women actors was indeed significantly higher in this second part of the list.
In the second series of studies, participants working in the traditionally male-dominated tech industry were asked to imagine themselves as a corporate strategist, scoping the market for a new CEO. They were again asked at the first stage to suggest three candidates and at the second stage to suggest three more. Results reflected those of the first study: there were significantly more women candidates listed at the second stage compared to the first.
In a third study, parents were asked again for a short and long list, this time naming role models for their male or female child. For parents of boys, results were similar to the prior studies: they named more women role models at the second stage than the first. But the opposite was true of parents of girls. This suggests that in longer lists, people are more likely to include candidates who don’t meet the gender prototype for the role. In certain industries, the prototypical hire is highly likely to be male, explaining why longer candidate lists tend to contain more women.
In the final two studies, participants completed the film director shortlist task from the first study or the technology executive shortlist task from the second — only this time, they were randomly assigned to generate either a three-person shortlist or a six-person shortlist, ranking candidates in order of preference. Again, longer shortlists had a positive effect when it came to inclusion: six-person shortlists featured significantly more women candidates than three-person shortlists. And importantly, six-person shortlists also had a higher proportion of female candidates.
The longer shortlist was also good news for women in terms of actual selection — that is, how highly women candidates were ranked by participants. Participants in the six-person condition were more likely to select women as top candidates than those in the three-person condition, suggesting that longer shortlists can have an impact not only on who gets a tentative foot in the door but who actually ends up with the job.
This type of gender bias is probably not always intentional: many of those informally suggesting candidates for roles will not be purposefully excluding women. Nevertheless, ensuring a move away from informal hiring practices and towards thoughtful, structured ones — blind CV selection, for example, or longer shortlists — could be a way of equalising unbalanced workforces.
As the study on Black women’s hair tells us, however, other factors like race, class and sexuality are likely to play a part in how people are perceived in interviews and in the workplace. Transgender or non-binary people are also likely to face different challenges. How would such candidates fare when it comes to shortlisting? Further research could explore this more.