Hidden bias: How companies can tackle unfair recruitment practices

Fingers pushing down one side of the scalesDespite anti-discrimination laws, recruiter bias is as prevalent now as it was 50 years ago, and prejudices about gender, ethnicity and age are limiting people’s job prospects. The knock-on effects on society and business are serious, so what can recruiters do to reduce the effect of implicit bias on who gets hired?

The bias crisis: what’s in a name?

Writing the perfect CV isn’t easy. Each word must be carefully chosen to maximise the chances of landing your dream job. But what if the most important word in the document isn’t about your education, career history or experience but is simply your name?

Researchers at the Centre for Social Inequality in Oxford sent thousands of similar fake CVs to a wide range of employers. The only difference between  them was the applicant’s name and the inclusion of a second language, designed to signal the sender’s ethnicity. On average, people thought to be from ethnic minorities had to send 60% more CVs to get a similar chance of a call-back, despite having an identical cover letter and CV. The problem was particularly bad for fictitious candidates from majority Muslim countries. Despite Britain’s anti-discrimination laws, the report found a similar level of discrimination exists here, compared to other European countries, and almost no sign of progress compared to similar studies undertaken 50 years ago.

Other studies using the same methodology have found similar results for gender, with women being around 30% less likely to be contacted by recruiters. The discrimination is worse for male-associated jobs like engineering, or if the candidate has children. In science, this bias goes beyond merely getting hired: female students are penalised in university applications and men are awarded grants 1.4 times more often than women, despite applying for a similar number. And there’s evidence that recruiters discriminate against certain ages, overweight candidates (especially overweight women) and unattractive people.

The big impacts of a hidden problem

Biases in recruitment aren’t just harmful to candidates, but also to business and academia. A report from Royal Society Open Science argues that diverse teams are better problem solvers and decision makers. Humans are bad at detecting their own biases, but very good at spotting other peoples, so having a mixed group means these traps are more likely to be spotted. A diverse group are also more likely to come up with a wider range of solutions to any given issue, which increases the likelihood of finding the best one. According to a report from 2018, businesses with diverse senior management are 21% more likely to have above-average profits.

What can we do to level the playing field?

The UK’s anti-discrimination laws on their own are clearly not a solution to the problem, but there are measures and procedures companies can use to decrease bias.

Better job ads

Bias can start very early on in the recruitment process, meaning some demographics are less likely to even apply. Some research suggests it can help for companies to remove gender associated language from job descriptions. And words like ‘bright’, ‘bubbly’ or ‘dominant’ come with gender associated baggage that can make references for women read poorly compared to those for men.

Blind CVs

A seemingly simple solution is to remove things like names, genders and nationalities from CVs and grant applications, meaning people are reviewed solely on their qualities and abilities. Whilst some institutions have started doing this, most companies don’t, so some disadvantaged applicants have taken to using male names or ‘whitening’ their CVs to try to avoid being victims of bias. How much impact the blind CV approach can have depends a lot on the interview process. Whilst it’s hard to interview someone in person without finding out their age, gender or appearance, it is possible to include blinded skills assessments and even preliminary online interviews by text chat.

Diverse hiring committees

Another type of bias called ‘affinity bias’, where people want to hire people that remind them of themselves, also causes problem. A diverse hiring panel doesn’t just tackle affinity bias, it also puts diverse interviewees at ease. Technology company Intel implemented a rule that hiring panels needed at least two women and/or underrepresented communities, and the percentage of hires that were either women or people of colour went from 32% to 45%.

Staff training

Recruiter bias is usually implicit: recruiters aren’t consciously aware they’re choosing one gender or ethnicity over another, so simply making people aware of this might help reduce it. A study from 2015 found a two-and-a-half-hour workshop was enough to reduce the levels of implicit bias in participants, and a follow-up from 2017 found this had a significant impact on their departments’ hiring practices: they recruited more women. However, this is a single success story from a mountain of studies, and a 2017 meta-analysis found that, overall, there is little change in behaviour resulting from training. Implicit bias training isn’t a silver bullet, and a lot more research is required before we fully understand what works.

Using AI hiring tools

Some have suggested eliminating bias by eliminating the people: perhaps AI could be used to avoid stereotyping candidates. Amazon developed just such a machine learning programme using ten years’ worth of CVs, but it incorporated the biases inherent in its training data set and penalised any CVs with the word ‘women’s’ in it.

Where does this leave us?

The most important takeaway is that companies need to adopt an evidence-based approach to rooting out their biases, without blindly throwing money at the problem. While it’s unpalatable, admitting that every one of us has unconscious biases can be a good first step towards making personal changes. And at an institutional level, we need to draft new policies and procedures that mitigate our implicit biases and make the hiring process inherently fairer. Hopefully, the more we tackle the problem now, the easier it will be in future as diversity becomes the norm.

You can read more about hiring process and practice in our Advocacy and Policy section.

By Georgia Mills. 

Georgia Mills is a freelance science writer and podcast producer. She likes good wine, bad films and ugly dogs. Follow her on Twitter at @georgiamills2.

Who’s asking the questions?

Woman asking questionHow can it be so difficult to ask a question? And why are men almost twice as likely to do it than women?

It’s the end of a research talk. You are easily the second most qualified person in the room after the speaker. A question comes readily to mind. And yet… somehow… your arm remains by your side. Before you know it, six men have asked ‘questions’ that demonstrate either that they weren’t listening or want to talk about their own, not necessarily relevant, research. Afterwards you berate yourself for yet again not raising your hand. How can it be this hard?

The fear does not necessarily diminish with age or seniority. In April 2014 I decided to go for it at a climate change meeting. As I raised my hand, my heart pounded. I mumbled my question into the microphone, having to restart at least once. To this day I can remember neither the question I asked nor the answer, only the panic and flight-response to the adrenalin surge. I was not an early career researcher. I had been a climate scientist for 20 years and was a professor of climate physics.

Safely back in my office, I wondered why I continued to feel this way. Was it just me? And was it down to me or was something else going on? I started counting and, at almost every subsequent meeting, the men asked more questions than you would expect given the gender balance of attendees. Whilst there has been much recent attention on diversity of speakers, the gender balance of those asking questions seems to be more persistently skewed. Whilst I have no doubt that in some cases, chairs or indeed speakers may be consciously or subconsciously favouring men, it was obvious in the meetings I looked at that women weren’t even raising their hands. A session chair can’t pick women if none volunteer.

And this issue is widespread. At an astronomy conference in 2014, women were under-represented amongst questioners compared to attendees. At a conservation biology conference male attendees asked 1.8 questions for each one from a female attendee even after counts were adjusted for the gender balance of attendees. The reason why this is happening is however missing from many of these studies.

Possible explanations involve a lack of confidence and links to studies demonstrating girls being less likely to engage in class at school. An age effect has also been considered: senior scientists are more likely to ask questions, but are also more likely to be male. However, the biology study found similar gender-based differences for early career researchers, suggesting that this is not purely an age effect.

In 2014, we surveyed staff and PhD students across our world leading, research intensive, physical science department. Fear of appearing ‘dumb’, ‘stupid’ or of ‘being found out’ was the primary reason people didn’t ask questions. Though this was slightly more important for women and early career researchers, there were a surprising number of senior staff thinking the same thing.

But why does it matter who asks the questions? Asking questions is a good way to raise your profile in the community, although people who blatantly only ask a question to advertise their own work do not end up with a good reputation in the end because everyone can tell the difference. The main intent when asking a question should be to contribute scientifically or to learn, so by not asking questions, both you and the rest of the audience will miss out on that learning. It’s also good practice for the times when you are up on stage – experiencing being the questioner helps you understand how to best answer questions.

So how can you become better at asking questions? Here are my five steps to getting there.

Practice. It might be easier to start in more informal or local environments (though I personally find it harder to ask in my department as my imposter syndrome kicks in when I know that I am going to see these same people every day!). Challenge yourself to raise your hand in at least one Q&A session for each meeting.

Plan. Go to talks where you are already confidence in the subject matter, or where you already know the speaker. Have a draft question ready, but also be flexible in case it is answered sufficiently in the talk and asking it would seem odd. However, don’t spend the whole talk stressing about asking a question as you’ll miss the content of the talk and won’t benefit from it.

Position. Sit somewhere accessible and consider wearing something either colourful or easy to describe – moderators can sometimes struggle to describe who the microphone should go to (in my field, ‘man in the checked shirt’ sometimes describes about 90% of the audience).

Remember. You are not alone – our survey showed that very often other people are wondering about or confused by the same thing you are. If someone else asks the question you have in mind, remember this as evidence that your question was a smart one and give it a go next time.

Be kind to yourself. If it doesn’t happen this time you haven’t ‘failed’ in asking questions. The situation may well be beyond your control (over-running speakers, talks that are so clear or so incomprehensible that forming a question is impossible). Also, asking questions is not the only way to contribute scientifically or enhance your reputation. Approaching a speaker in the coffee session and/or following up with an email are also good options.

Finally, if all else fails try imagining the rest of the audience as watermelons. I don’t know why, but my 11 year old says this works for him.

What works for you?

By Ellie Highwood

Ellie Highwood is a Visiting Professor in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, having been a Professor of Climate Physics there since 2011. She is now a Diversity and Inclusion Consultant and a Leadership, Career and Life Coach.

The deep roots of impostor syndrome

Women with maskImpostor syndrome is widespread amongst women and can have a negative effect on their careers. Where does it start, and what can we do about it?

“I don’t belong here. I’m a fraud. I’ve tricked my way into my position, and it’s only a matter of time before someone finds me out.”

Unless by some small chance you happen to be a professional con artist, the above is likely not true. But those kinds of thoughts will strike a chord with around seven out of ten people reading this.

“With every good grade I was afraid that I didn’t deserve it, and had somehow fooled the examiners,” said Daniela, a physics PhD at the University of Sussex, who first experienced anxiety during her bachelor’s degree. It only intensified during her master’s.

“The feeling of not being good enough, not living up to the expectations and having managed to trick my application committee for the PhD into believing I was good enough was overwhelming. I’m a really self-critical person, and with those feelings on top I felt like crying from frustration and doubt after ever single little thing I didn’t understand.”

Daniela’s experience is far from unique: many people feel like they don’t deserve their status or success, that someone is going to find them out. This feeling was termed imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon, back in the 1980s by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes.

It can affect anyone but seems particularly prevalent in women: a recent survey found that 95% of women in academia have experienced it at some point. And there’s no milestone of success you can reach that grants immunity from these feelings. Indeed, the better you do the worse it can get, as Daniela found as she progressed with her career in science.

“This went so far, even outside work, that I was afraid to fall into depression. This led me to being really closed up and hesitant about asking questions, afraid that an ‘obviously stupid’ question could make everyone realise that I didn’t belong”

Apart from causing significant distress to individuals, imposter syndrome can have dramatic knock-on effects. People with imposter syndrome are less likely to apply for jobs, and it may be the reason women are more hesitant to ask for a pay rise. It has even been suggested a possible cause of the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’, with women being much more likely than men to leave careers in STEM.

Many people experience imposter syndrome for the first time at university, with feelings of inadequacy often increasing over careers. So where does it come from, and why does it seem to affect women more than men? Research is now showing that the seeds are sown much, much earlier than we thought.

A study from the University of Illinois managed to pinpoint the exact age girls start to disassociate being female with being clever. When five-year-olds are told about a ‘really, really smart’ individual, and asked to pick them out from a picture of two men and two women, they overwhelmingly associate intelligence with their own gender. But, by ages six and seven, only the boys remained more likely to pick their own gender. The girls seemed to lose this connection with their own sex and brilliance. The researchers also found older girls were less likely to want to play games that were described as for ‘really, really smart children’.

It’s worth noting that girls persistently outperform boys in their school grades at these ages.

From then on, the two genders continue to diverge. A recent survey found that, while 12-year-old boys and girls tend to have similar levels of confidence, puberty causes female confidence to drop considerably more than their male contemporaries.

It’s less clear what is driving these changes. Are women biologically doomed to be filled with self-doubt, or is society slowly squeezing the confidence out of them? Or could it be that women are just more accurate with self-assessment, while men never lose the unearned confidence of a toddler?

There’s evidence that parents are more likely to think their sons are intellectually gifted than their daughters. One study found that teachers gave higher test scores in maths to students with male names, and others have shown teachers spend more time speaking to male students, and are more likely to interrupt girls.

This, alongside media which, putting it kindly, doesn’t always represent women for their intellect, can slowly leech into children’s ideas of their gender’s abilities. Should we be surprised then, when women who are successful question if they’ve somehow played the system?

And what about our biological differences in the brain? Here, evidence is slippery and contradictory, but so far no strong evidence exists to suggest this is an innate, biological difference.

There is some good news. A number of surveys report that female confidence matches men’s by their 40s, and eventually even surpasses them by their 60s. Unfortunately, that’s still over two decades of someone’s working life being hampered by low confidence. And what’s worse – when women do show the same levels of confidence as men, they’re perceived as less likable and employable in what’s termed the backlash effect. Just examine some of the criticism of the US women’s football team, repeatedly labeled as arrogant during the 2019 World Cup for their confident celebrations after victories.

While this may all seem a bit depressing, for people like Daniela there are ways of managing imposter syndrome.

“What I found worked for me and helped immensely is talking openly about it with people I trust. Usually it turns out that a lot of other people have thoughts like that [but] we often only see the successful and effortless-seeming side of the story, not the hard work, struggle and doubt behind our colleagues”.

Imposter syndrome can be minimised by talking about it with people, making regular checks on your own achievements – strengthening the parts of your brain that recognise your self worth. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can also be employed to help with coping mechanisms.

But what about nipping these internalised thoughts in the bud, seeing as women start to doubt themselves and their gender as young as six? This is harder. No parent would ever admit to underestimating their daughters’ intelligence because of gender. It’s an unconscious bias deeply rooted in our entire society.

But there are things you can do to try and check these biases. Teachers, whether their students are six or 26, can make sure that female students are encouraged to ask and answer questions. Parents, or grownups meeting children, can make sure they compliment girls on things other than their looks. And the more brilliant women children see, in life or in fiction, the more likely they are to think “that could be me”, and less likely, once they reach their dreams, to think “this can’t be right”.

By Georgia Mills. 

Georgia Mills is a freelance science writer and podcast producer. She likes good wine, bad films and ugly dogs. Follow her on Twitter at @georgiamills2.

Should you become a STEM communicator?

Science communicationsFor many people who work in STEM, and especially those in research, science communications or ‘scicomm’ has become an essential part of their job. But if you’re not already engaged in scicomm, should you start?

Why communicate science?

Science is in demand: Journalists are always looking for stories, politicians and campaigners need information to develop policy, fellow citizens want to understand the world around them, and entrepreneurs are looking for new products. STEM research has never had such a wide and varied audience.

On the other side of the coin, STEM institutions are realising that clear and accessible communication of their research is essential to building good relationships with – and gaining the approval of – their communities. Funders are also seeing the value, and frequently request that grant applicants explain how they are going to communicate their findings to stakeholders and the public. And employers, whether in academia or industry, increasingly recognise the importance of scicomm skills and will look for, and expect to find, evidence of STEM communication on your CV.

And of course, many people who add a communications angle to their work find it affirming and enjoyable, and it reminds them of why they went into STEM in the first place. So if you want to expand your skillset and make your CV more attractive, it’s certainly worth acquiring some scicomm skills.

Where to start?

The first and most important think that you need to decide is who you want to talk to. Who is your audience? Are you talking to colleagues, other scientists in your field who use the same jargon and who are already familiar with the ideas and concepts you want to discuss? Or do you want to be more of an advisor, sharing information with those who lack it and seek it, for example, the panel members of a parliamentary enquiry who need explanations in everyday language? Or would you prefer to be talking to the general public, demystifying your area of expertise, putting current affairs into context, and helping people understand the research being published in your field?

The kind of STEM communications you want to do, the audience you want to address, and your relationship with them will change where you start and how you develop your new skills. Getting the roles and relationships right is the first step to effective communication.

Deciding on your strategy

So, consider these questions when you face a STEM communication challenge, and keep your answers in mind as you prepare. Even for the simple task of giving a talk, you need to know:

  1. What is the purpose of the exercise and of my contribution?

It could be educating, advising, campaigning, developing policy, lobbying, pitching, selling, entertaining, sharing or listening, or some combination of these.

  1. Who am I talking to?

Are they older or younger, senior or junior in rank, experts in your subject or not, preparing for exams, personally affected, knowledgeable and passionate activists, people who share your values or hold different ones … ?

  1. What kind of space and size of audience will I face, and for how long?

A small group around a table for two hours, a lecture hall full of people for 40 minutes, or science festival participants should they choose to stop at your stall for a minute or two?

  1. What is my role on this occasion?

Are you an expert armed with facts, an advocate aiming to persuade, an advisor offering suggestions, or a fellow citizen looking to share knowledge and learn from others?

Once you have clear answers to these questions, your communication strategy will emerge.

For example, imagine that you are an engineer, and you have been asked to visit a school to meet 12 teenagers who are thinking of studying engineering.  You will be expected to advise them, but also to keep them entertained (they expect both of these from adults in their school). You can find out from the school what stage of their education they have reached (what choices are still open to them?), and what their cultural backgrounds are (are family members likely to be professionals?). You have been given a slot at a lunch-break – 40 minutes, after the students have eaten (they may be wishing they were outside). You are an expert with experience (and so can offer stories about the exciting and important jobs you and your friends do), but you also want to be a possible future colleague for the young people (so you are accessible and congenial). You are different from them now, but you are inviting them to become your equals, and so you make that seem possible.

Sharing your expertise, and learning from others

STEM professionals are valuable to society because of their expertise. It is their job to know about their subject, and to recognise that other people reply on them for this knowledge. But at the same time, where many people are affected by the outcomes of scientific knowledge, we should recognise that their own expertise and experience that may contribute to better understandings overall, and to more cohesive and equitable collaborations between science and society.

Developing communications skills and confidence, whether that’s in public speaking, writing, podcasting or media appearances, will help you develop your broader STEM career. Many learned societies provide training, and there are plenty of courses and resources available online. Talk to people who have had some practice and learn from them. Find out about your local science festival and offer to help. Read science blogs, listen to podcasts, follow science communicators on Twitter or Facebook, and think analytically about what you see and hear – what was fun, what was interesting, what was clearly explained (and how)?

Start a Twitter account, Facebook page, blog or podcast and remember that like all skills, communication takes practice. Dive in. You will probably enjoy it, and so will your audience. Your CV will benefit too.

By Jane Gregory.