As seen on The Wall Street Journal.
JOHN SULLIVAN: Unfortunately, there are many barriers that limit the job opportunities for professional women.
Firms should use surveys of past women candidates or hires and quality of hire data to determine which factors unnecessarily restrict the hiring of women at their firms.
The barriers that often have the greatest negative impact include:
1. Job descriptions that are “too male oriented” put off women. Something as simple as the way a job description is written can be a barrier that prevents professional women from applying. Since most hiring managers for professional jobs are men, the job postings and position descriptions written by them use words that are male focused. And some women report that they view these terms as an indication that the job is designed specifically for a male. Some women may even be discouraged by typical phrases such as, “work hard/play hard,” because family responsibilities may restrict their ability to do either one.
Action: Involve women in the writing of job descriptions and then pretest them for “male bias.”
2. The résumé-screening process may prematurely eliminate qualified women. The most obvious bias occurs when recruiters or hiring managers make assumptions and use stereotypes when they see that a résumé is from a woman. The negative bias can begin almost immediately when they see a female name but it can also occur because the résumés of women are often presented in a “softer” style and format. The bias may also occur because women often include less aggressive content and they brag less about their accomplishments in their résumés.
Even the “keyword search” can be biased against women, if the keywords selected lean toward the terminology that is mostly used by men. And finally, their résumés may be rejected because some of the work experience that women have occurs outside the corporate environment. This “soft,” noncorporate experience may be discounted, even though the same skills were used and the same results were achieved.
Action: Involve women in the initial résumé screening, make sure that the keywords that are identified aren’t male oriented and require a second screening of “almost qualified” women that were rejected.
3. The interview process may be biased against women. Most interviews are face-to-face, so everyone immediately knows they are interviewing a woman. Having mostly men conducting and evaluating during interviews may indicate to women that this firm has a male-dominated culture, which may cause them to prematurely drop out.
The unique behaviors and the body language of women, when observed by males during interviews may result in women getting significantly lower interview scores, even though they provided the same quality of answers as male candidates. It is also not unusual for interviewers to ask women completely different questions than those that are posed to men. It is important to note that research has revealed that professional women brag less about themselves and their accomplishments during interviews.
And finally, because of family issues, women may be less available for the required number of multiple interviews, which may cause them to drop out of the hiring process.
Action: Hold telephone interviews to make it harder to determine the sex of the interviewee. Also consider “questionnaire interviews,” where interviewees anonymously provide answers in writing. And finally, videotape interview so that they can be reviewed again to determine if there was a mistake made.
4. There may be a bias against women in the assessment of “fit.” Almost all firms have some sort of assessment to determine what is known as “fit” (i.e. do they fit in with the rest of the employees). The fit assessment is more likely to screen out women, innovators, diverse individuals because they “act differently” than the average (male) employee.
Action: Simply put off assessing fit until the very end of the hiring process or insure that women are involved in the fit assessment.
5. Standard offers seldom meet the unique needs of women. Most firms fail to identify the “job acceptance criteria” that professional women need to be met before they will accept an offer. If you don’t meet each of professional women’s needs in an offer, they will simply stay where they are. This becomes a problem because the standard offer is undoubtedly sculpted to the needs of average professional men. Not personalizing the offers will result in a higher percentage of rejections of the offers made to women.
Action: Before you make an offer, ask finalists what they specifically need to say yes. For the most desirable candidates, be willing to customize the job to their job acceptance criteria.
John Sullivan has been a professor of management for over 26 years at San Francisco State University. His specialty is human resources strategy and designing human-resources systems and tools for Fortune 200 firms.