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Research finds that women are disadvantaged long before board level

17 Oct 2012

1512Data reveals gender inequality in the hiring process When all else is equal, gatekeepers at staffing companies tend to recommend candidates to their clients based on gender stereotypes, according to a study by London Business School associate professor Isabel Fernandez-Mateo and her colleague, Zella King from Henley Business School.


Their study, ‘Anticipatory Sorting and Gender Segregation in Temporary Employment’, looked at data from a mid-sized staffing agency in the IT sector, spanning nine years, covering 23,355 candidates, vying for 6,705 jobs for 2,331 clients.

In at least one aspect, their examination of the hiring process was unique: the academics had access to ‘pre-hire data on the pool of candidates competing for each position’. From there, they became interested in whether more men than women were hired for short-term, temporary jobs.

Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, said: “This kind of information is extremely rare, yet it is essential to make accurate inferences regarding how men and women are allocated to different jobs.

“We did find evidence of gender segregation. When staffing firms are involved in a hiring process, women are more likely to be shortlisted for lower-paid projects and less likely to be shortlisted for higher-paid projects. By stark contrast, the client companies are more likely to interview women for almost all projects with the exception of some at the top of the pay distribution.”

On the surface, the procedure for finding candidates does not suggest any favouritism. However, the problem arises when placement consultants practise what the researchers ultimately called ‘anticipatory gender sorting’. Gatekeepers sort potential hires by ranking the people with the highest matches of skills to the opening. The researchers set out to find if there is unconscious bias on the part of the placement agency in the selection of candidates sent to interviews.

They discovered that the statistical proof on gender segregation only shows up when the sample is tested before the agency places candidates in the queue for an interview.

The mystery of bias in the selection process was heightened when it was revealed that clients actually disregard gender when it comes to the hiring of temporary workers. In fact, women seem to have a slight advantage over men. The most important consideration, in the minds of those at the agency, is to please the client to generate repeat business. As a result, the agency produces a list of candidates believed to meet ‘the clients’ expected preferences;’ these candidates are more likely to be male for high paid jobs but female for low paid jobs. Thus, by assuming that clients will prefer women to men for certain jobs (even if they may not), stereotyping becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some of the other key findings were:


  • Once in the interview queue, males and females had the same chance of getting hired for higher paying jobs. However, the same number of males and females did not make it to the candidate pool.

  • In cases in which the talent pool is fairly shallow (i.e. high paid specialised jobs), evidence suggests that the screeners tended toward the ‘safest’ candidate — a typical (that is, usually, male) candidate.

“At a more general level,” the academics note, “the results highlight how interactions among screeners in the different stages of the hiring process can jumpstart gender segregation well before candidates are placed in jobs.”