Four Ways to Stop Unconscious Bias from Sabotaging Your Executive Search Process


Subscribe to receive industry-focused thought leadership and insights, delivered right to your inbox Subscribe

Breaking the bias for International Women’s Day

It’s hard to believe that we are celebrating our third International Women’s Day amidst a global pandemic. Every year on this day, I reflect on how far women have come in the workforce compared to my mother’s generation and the advances I hope we will have made by the time my children enter the workplace.  And while women have made important gains in representation, especially in senior leadership, and while I do remain optimistic about gender equality in their time, the pandemic continues to take its toll on women achieving gender parity in the workplace – especially moms of school aged children – and I am frustrated.

It is frustrating to think that in 2022, the gender pay gap continues to exist. Last year, for every dollar a man made, a woman made 82 cents for equivalent work.  When you try and explain the pay gap to children, they are confused. Why? Because it just doesn’t make sense. And while we have seen gains in recent years, they have been tediously slow –  approximately one cent a year.

It is frustrating that, despite the fact that companies with more women in leadership roles are 25% more likely to financially outperform their competitors, among the largest publicly traded companies in the U.S., only about one in five board members are women and nearly one in 10 boards have no women.

The pandemic will have a lasting, disproportional impact on women’s careers

With record numbers of people leaving the job force in 2021, women are continuing to lead what has been termed “The Great Resignation”. In 2020, McKinsey & Company found that one in four women were considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers versus one in five men. Why? According to a linkedIn poll for women on the number one way the pandemic has impacted their career, ‘childcare limitations’ was at the top of the list.   

Childcare stereotypically falls on moms, regardless of the nature of their careers. It is telling that when a man has a career and also happens to have children, he’s not labelled any differently than he was before children. But when a woman with a career has a child, all of a sudden, she’s referred to as a “working mom” – and is perceived differently in the workplace than a woman with a career who doesn’t have a child. Women are expected to work like they don’t have children, and to raise children as if they don’t have careers.

The pandemic exposed just how much time women spend each day on parenting compared to their male counterparts. During the 2020 school closures, the average woman in North America took on 173 additional hours of unpaid child care (while juggling their careers) compared to 59 additional hours for men. Thus it should come as no surprise that two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, women are even more burned out than they were last year — and increasingly more so than men. According to McKinsey’s 2021 Women in the Workplace report, one in three women have considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce this year, compared with one in four who said this a few months into the pandemic. Additionally, 40% of women considered leaving their company or switching jobs in 2021 — and high employee turnover in recent months suggests that many of them are following through.

Even in my house where we aim to divide childcare and household duties more equitably, social norms mean that as a mother, I am the one responsible for update calls from school, playdates, extracurricular programing etc. for my children. And I am not alone – most of the time I am planning and communicating with other parents, it is with other mothers. I often wonder how many times my husband has been asked how he balances being a “working dad”? Or how he deals with ‘dad guilt’? Or if his wife is ‘babysitting’? These are questions that as a mother I am asked regularly, and they are a reflection of society’s gender bias.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “break the bias” and I have been focusing on the bias that continues to exist, particularly surrounding women, and what I can do, both personally and professionally to help ensure gender equality is a reality for my children.

To be human is to process bias – it impacts everything we do

It is important to acknowledge that we all are biased; it cannot be avoided. It’s not a character flaw nor does it make us a bad person. Possessing bias is an evolutionary trait – it is simply how our brains operate. We have been wired to make snap judgments in order to increase our chance of survival. While this instinct may have been critically necessary thousands of years ago, today we readily make snap judgements about others instead of informed, data-driven decisions. We form lasting impressions of others in the span of milliseconds, and as companies evaluate talent, bias can manifest in more negative ways that can be detrimental to an organization.

Unconscious bias is what causes us to absentmindedly pass over the resumes of those whose names we can’t pronounce – even though they may be the most qualified candidates for the job.  It’s what causes us to look at applicants more favourably just because they went to the same schools as we did or share the same hobbies. It’s why job applicants with “black sounding names” are far less likely to be called for interviews. It is why female executives tend to hire more females and male executives tend to hire more males. It’s why a disproportionate number of CEOs are over six feet tall and why men are more likely than women to be perceived as competent leaders.  

Even Google algorithms that help match job seekers to job postings have demonstrated bias. In one study, when Google presumed users to be male job seekers, they were more likely to be shown ads for high-paying executive jobs vs. female job seekers. Google showed the ads 1,852 times to the male group — but just 318 times to the female group. If the reason for this is AI-learned bias – perhaps men apply for high-powered jobs more frequently than women – it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We tend to prefer to hire people that look and act like us – even though we think we’re hiring the most qualified candidate for the job

Most hiring managers don’t consciously set out to hire someone that reminds them of themselves, but we’re all predisposed to look for homogeneity. We feel safe when surrounded by people who look and act similar to us, and we feel a sense of discomfort when confronted with ideas or opinions that are radically different to our own.

Unconscious bias makes us believe we are making accurate, rational decisions about another person’s professional aptitude or capabilities, when in actuality, we are making decisions based on personal preference and likability. This can have detrimental impacts in the workplace – especially when hiring leaders, who have a great influence over an organization’s culture and performance. Unconscious bias can greatly impact who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets invited to meetings or work social events and ultimately whose opinions influence key decisions.

There are countless studies to support the existence of unconscious bias in the hiring process. A Yale University study found that both male and female scientists who had taken a training course on how to hire objectively still preferred to hire men over women, viewing them as more skilled and were willing to offer about $4000 more per year in salary. A 2017 study found that the level of racial discrimination in hiring had remained constant and high over the previous 25 years. The test: submit identical résumés for the same positions but with “distinct racial names.” The result: résumés with white names received, on average, 24% more invitations for an interview than those with what were perceived as “Latinx-sounding names” and 36% more than those with what were perceived “Black-sounding names”.

Another study found that well-qualified fictional applicants who disclosed a disability “that would not be expected to limit productivity,” such as a spinal cord injury for an accounting position, received 26% fewer invitations for an interview than those without a disability.

Breaking the bias means creating more diverse workforces – and diversity wins in the marketplace

The business case for the benefits of a diverse workforce is proven –  increased profits and innovation, objectivity, improved efficiency and productivity, the ability to attract and retain top talent and overall employee happiness are just some examples. Research demonstrates that teams with greater diversity across all facets – gender, race, socioeconomic status, age, sexual orientation – are better at problem-solving and innovating and achieve better financial results than their peers. When teams are more homogenous, they are more likely to have the similar biases and collectively less diversity of thought. For this reason, diverse teams are more objective. The more diverse a team, the more likely that team is to make strategic decisions based on evidence and fact, versus gut-feel or bias, which leads to better decision making and improved outcomes.

Companies that make a strong commitment to diversity through their mission statement and hiring practices are more likely to attract better candidates. This is especially true for millennial and Gen-Z workers — 83% of millennial workers said they are actively engaged at work when they feel their employer cares about diversity, equity and inclusion. Thus, if employers don’t address bias in the interview process, they are not only potentially limiting their ability to hire diverse employees, but they could actually be turning top talent away from their company.

Once we accept the universality of bias, we can focus on tactics that work to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace and help organizations to break the bias.

Four Actions your Organization Can Take to Combat Bias in your Executive Search Process

As an executive search professional, I am committed to breaking the bias through the candidate selection process every day.  Can organizations break the bias? Fostering diversity in the workplace starts with the hiring process. Here are FOUR ways to break the bias within your organization’s hiring practices.

1) Promote awareness of unconscious bias

Letting unconscious bias influence hiring decisions can create or perpetuate deep inequalities within an organization. At Bedford Group Transearch, we’ve always believed the first step to breaking the bias is awareness – you can’t address what you aren’t aware of. Unconscious bias training is always a great first step – and one we recommend to clients. Unconscious bias training and open dialogue allows organizations and their employees to either identify or reacquaint themselves with their own personal biases. Once aware of these biases, employees can take meaningful action to combat them.

One way to combat unconscious bias is to consciously remind yourself that your decision to hire or not to hire is purely based on the job requirements, and not whether, as an example, you both are Blue Jays fans or both perfected the art of baking sourdough during pandemic lockdowns. Those are examples of likeability, not fit.

Remember, while “culture fit” remains a crucial component of hiring, it should mean finding candidates whose core beliefs, attitudes and behaviors reflect that of the organization, not finding candidates that enjoy the same leisure activities.

2) Remove gendered language from job descriptions

Gendered language – and the inerrant bias that goes with it – is everywhere. “Chairman” instead of “chair” or “salesman” instead of “salesperson” are examples of gendered language that, when used in a job description, makes an obvious statement. And while many organizations are making efforts to address gender bias, women are still often faced with it when they fill out a form or job application. While males come under the catch-all title “Mr”, women are still categorizing their age and marital status by specifying their title as “Mrs, Ms, or Miss”.

Bedford Group Transearch counsels its clients to break the bias by removing gendered language from job descriptions (or at least keeping it balanced) to attract the widest pool of qualified candidates – because you can’t hire people who choose not to apply. Gendered language does not necessarily mean pronouns such as he or she – rather, it refers to traits and stereotypes commonly associated with a specific gender (because of unconscious bias). These words aren’t always obvious or intuitive, but they can influence prospective applicants. As an example, words such as ‘competitive’ or ‘dominant’ are commonly associated with male stereotypes, whereas words such as ‘supportive’ and ‘understanding’ are commonly associated with female stereotypes.

One study found that including gendered wording in a job description can make a position seem less appealing to a certain gender, resulting in a reduced applicant pool for that job. That study also found that advertisements for stereotypically male jobs had more masculine wording then their female counterparts (97% vs 70%), which led women to 1) think more men worked there, 2) believe they would not belong in that position, and 3) find the job less appealing. However, this wording did not affect their assessment of their abilities to do the job. These differences due to subtle language differences in how jobs are advertised may be contributing to the ongoing gender gap in historically male-dominated fields.

There is a strong case for removing gendered wording (or ensuring it is balanced) in job descriptions. Evidence shows that job postings that replace gendered wording with neutral terms get 42% more applicants. To be clear, it’s not that you can’t ever use gendered words, but it matters how you use them. Make sure that your job description is well balanced and appeals to all genders equally.

When in doubt, there are many tools such as textio that help organizations analyze language in documents and screen for gendered wording. Remember, job descriptions are often the first real touch point between an organization and prospective candidates, and organizations should strive to make a strong first impression.

3) Prioritize skills and disregard unnecessary criteria

Prospective candidates will bring their own unique experiences to an organization. To evaluate candidates fairly and effectively with different but equal experiences, organizations should:

  • Avoid including a laundry list of skills on job descriptions,
  • Disregard unnecessary criteria that can promote bias; and,
  • Prioritize the competencies and skills that are truly critical to success in a role.

Think twice about including rigorous expectations, some examples being the required number of years of experience or a specific graduate degree or designation. Are these truly critical to success in the role? What otherwise qualified candidates might you be excluding because of this criteria? What inequalities and biases might your organization be unintentionally perpetuating by automatically disqualifying candidates with relevant skills because they do not check these boxes?  

Research shows that in order to apply for a job women feel they need to meet 100% of the criteria while men usually apply after meeting about 60%. Linkedin behavioral data supports this finding — women tend to screen themselves out of the conversation and end up applying to 20% fewer jobs than men. Roles with endless lists of requirements, nice-to-haves and strict seniority demands can deter women from applying as they often want to make sure they check every box. One tactic to combat this is to include a disclaimer in any job description that explicitly encourages people not precisely matching the job description to apply anyway.

Another tactic organizations have been employing to promote unbiased and consistent hiring practices is skill based hiring. In fact, companies such as Google, Apple, and IBM have dropped college degree requirements from job postings. Unlike degree requirements, skills tests allow for a more diverse set of employees as the resulting data enables employers to objectively identify candidates (who may not have otherwise been identified) who possess the needed skills to excel in a position. But remember, job specific skills tests are not a “one size fits all” solution – to be effective, they must match the core competencies required in a specific position.

4) Diversify the interview panel

The interview panel is often the first conversation a prospective employee will have with a potential employer, and the way it is structured says a lot about an organization. In a candidate market, this first impression is critical – organizations must get it right by ensuring that they employ inclusive hiring practices, especially in interviews. At Bedford Group Transearch we challenge our clients to be thoughtful about who is representing the organization during an interview, and whether in a panel or a set of interviews, we encourage our clients to ensure their interviewers are diverse.

A diverse panel or group of interviewers can help break the bias as they are more likely to hire a more diverse group of employees – as different interviewers will have different perspectives on each candidate. This case for diverse interviewers has been strengthened by the pandemic as virtual interviews do not offer candidates the same opportunity to walk around the office and evaluate diversity in a workforce, which studies show is an important factor in candidate decision making.

SurveyMonkey, in partnership with Living Corporate, recently released data from a survey of 2,600 U.S. adults that reveals that while 79% of job seekers today say it is important that they work for a company that hires candidates from diverse backgrounds, only one-third (34%) said they have met with a diverse panel of interviewers.

As it relates to women, a growing body of evidence suggests that, consciously or unconsciously, women hire more women and are more likely to work for companies with a higher proportion of female leaders. Further, experts say, one of the biggest deciding factors on whether a female candidate accepts a job is if there was a woman on the interview panel. In fact, one study found that companies with female CEOs have twice the number of female board members than then the market average. The same study showed that companies with female CEOs and CFOs tend to have cultures that focus on diversity and inclusion to higher degree than their counterparts. Given this, employing a diverse group of interviewers is more important now than ever.

One recommendation Bedford Group Transearch makes to our clients is to have each person involved in the hiring process follow the same scoring system so they can compare candidates based on the same ranking process.

We have come a long way with respect to gender parity, but if we truly want to break the bias, we still have a long road ahead of us. While the pandemic has set back a decade of progress toward women achieving gender parity in the workplace and its full impact has yet to be realized, I continue to believe our society is heading in the direction where, by the time my kids are old enough to read this, the need for gender equality won’t be a topic of discussion, because it will be the norm.

About the Bedford Group TRANSEARCH

Bedford Group Transearch is Canada’s leading executive search firm, and one of the top 10 executive search firms in the world. Our process goes beyond traditional executive search, providing clients with holistic organizational strategy and talent management solutions.  Want to discuss your executive search or talent strategy needs with one of our partners? Contact us.