STEM Jobs Unconscious Bias

25th March 2014

We were drawn to a recent study about STEM jobs because it chimed so closely with the discussion in our recently launched “Talking Unconscious Bias” podcast.

It came to our attention via an article posted on the Fortune website entitled: “Why women (still) don’t get hired for jobs involving math(s)” (our UK-biased ‘s’!) and looked at unconscious bias against women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) jobs.

A new study, published in the latest edition of the Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences, suggests a reason for women making up just one-third of the IT workforce.

An experiment set up by three professors from Columbia, Northwestern, and Chicago business schools had volunteers acting as hiring managers, and others who posed as job applicants. The ersatz male and female candidates were given a maths test and on average, the men and women scored equally well.

No information, apart from appearance and gender, was provided about any of the “candidates” yet the “managers” of either gender were twice as likely to choose a male “candidate” over a female “candidate”.

Perhaps even more shocking, when our mocked-up managers were shown the results of the maths test, they simply didn’t believe the results.

It turned out that women had to do 15% better than their male counterparts to land a make-believe job. And when applicants were asked to predict their future performance, men overstated their abilities whilst women undersold theirs. To further compound these attitudes some managers did not adjust their views, even when they were aware of them, and deliberately chose under-performing males.

Professor Reuben from the Columbia Business School sums up: “We all have biases based on beliefs that are largely unconscious. I had a slight bias [against women in math] myself. But people making hiring decisions can correct for that bias, if they are aware that they have it.”

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