Think about it like a math problem: When two out of four final candidates for a job are women, there is a 50 percent chance that the candidate hired in the end will be a woman. Makes sense, right? So when one out of the final four candidates for a job is a woman, what do you think the chances are that the final hire will be female? Should be 25 percent, right?
Well, according to a new study out this week in the Harvard Business Review, the lone woman’s chance of being hired out of a group of men is actually zero. She has statistically no chance of being hired for the position, regardless of qualifications, unless another woman is also being considered. This bias is even more exaggerated for minority candidates.
So much for diversity initiatives.
The authors of the study chalk this up to people’s innate tendency to want to preserve the status quo. And when it comes to hiring—especially for management positions—the status quo bias is not kind to women (or minorities).
There are more CEOs of large U.S. companies who are named David (4.5%) than there are CEOs who are women (4.1%)—and David isn’t even the most common first name among CEOs. (That would be John, at 5.3%.)
In two controlled studies conducted at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, the researchers measured how undergraduate candidates would recommend hiring for when one out of three potential candidates were given “stereotypically black” names and the others were given “white” names versus when two out of the three candidates were “black.” This same experiment was recreated with female names versus males names.
You can probably guess how this turned out, right? When they represented a break from the white male status quo, women and minorities were essentially always passed over. It was only when the status quo changed (by having a majority minority or female pool) was a woman or a minority the favorite candidate.
In case you didn’t think this had anything to do with race or sex, the researchers were able to show that people who scored high on a separate set of tests designed to measure innate sexism and racism actually favored female or minority candidates more when they were the majority. The qualifications hadn’t changed, these people were just reacting to what they considered to be a racial or gender status quo. A sole female or minority was viewed as an outlier candidate while a majority black or female pool was indicative of a black or female career—one that should stay that way.
These findings were corroborated when the researchers turned their attention to actual hiring practices at a university. They examined the gender and racial breakdown of 598 job finalists, 174 of whom received offers, with an average finalist pool of four candidates.
We found that when there were two female finalists, women had a significantly higher chance of being hired (β = 4.37, p< .001). The odds of hiring a woman were 79.14 times greater if there were at least two women in the finalist pool (controlling for the number of other men and women finalists). There was also a significant effect for race (β = 5.27, p < .001). The odds of hiring a minority were 193.72 times greater if there were at least two minority candidates in the finalist pool (controlling for the number of other minority and white finalists). This effect held no matter the size of the pool (six finalists, eight finalists, etc.), and these analyses excluded all cases in which there were no women or minority applicants.
But maybe you’d like to see that visually?
In case you can’t tell, these numbers are far beyond the expected probability increase.
Authors Stefanie K. Johnson, David R. Hekman, and Elsa T. Chan presented their research to the White House earlier this month, where Johnson explained how this plays out in modern hiring practices:
So many companies, for such a long time, have been working to get a woman in the pool: ‘We have to get one woman in the pool. We have to get one minority in the pool.’ And that’s been [human resources] effort to at least get one minority candidate. And what this paper says is that it’s not enough to include just one female or one minority candidate in the pool to make yourself feel better. It isn’t a true diversity effort.
Johnson told the Guardian that she hopes future research will consider the thought process behind dismissing seemingly “token” candidates purely on the basis of their race or gender. Yes. Let’s do that.
But wouldn’t it also work to have hiring pools more reflective of the available candidates? After all, in 2014, more women than men graduated from college.