No matter how strong their credentials or negotiating skills, women are less likely than men to be chosen for jobs historically held by men, such as positions in leadership, science, and engineering, past research shows. In a new study, University of Vienna assistant professor Steffen Keck and National University of Singapore visiting assistant professor Wenjie Tang found the comparisons that hiring personnel make among final candidates for a position may play a role in such discrimination.
In one experiment, the researchers gave 218 online participants (125 female, 93 male) profiles of two or three applicants for a position as a client support engineer in the aerospace industry, a job that they were told would require technical competence and customer-support experience. Applicants’ profiles included their names, work experience, and technical competence, as reflected in their level of education.
When participants compared a male applicant—“Kevin Davis”—and a female applicant—“Sarah Thompson”—who had similar qualifications (with one having more work experience and the other having attained a higher education level), they were not biased against the female candidate; they chose her about as often as the male candidate.
That changed when a third, male candidate, “William Anderson,” was added to the choice set. When William was less qualified than Kevin on both dimensions (work experience and education) and more comparable to Sarah, participants were much more likely to choose Kevin. And when William was less qualified than Sarah and more comparable to Kevin, participants were still more likely to choose Kevin.
The results of this and other experiments by Keck and Tang suggest that when people (men and women) are hiring someone for a male-stereotyped position, they will strive to be objective and fair. Yet, due to the powerful influence of gender biases, most people will find male candidates to be more congruent with such roles. As a result, they will unconsciously look for other reasons to justify choosing the male candidate instead of the female candidate. In this study, the presence of a less-qualified male candidate was sufficient to make a male candidate seem like a better choice than a similarly qualified female candidate.
The findings should encourage hiring managers to think carefully about the set of final applicants being considered for a given position—not just their qualifications, but their number. Research by Iris Bohnet (Harvard Kennedy School), Alexandra van Geen (Erasmus University, Netherlands), and Max H. Bazerman (Harvard Business School) found that decision makers who evaluate two applicants at the same time, rather than separately, make more rational judgments and are less likely to fall back on gender stereotypes. Keck and Tang’s research suggests that adding a third candidate to the mix could introduce more biased thinking. Thus, when it comes to narrowing the field of candidates for an open position, two may be the magic number.
Resource: “When ‘Decoy Effect’ Meets Gender Bias: The Role of Choice Set Composition in Hiring Decisions,” by Steffen Keck and Wenjie Tang. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2020.