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Hiring managers prefer men over women for STEM careers

Posted: 02 Apr 2014  Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Columbia Business School  STEM  gender gap  bias 

During a test in which both male and female hiring managers were asked to hire a participant to complete a mathematical task based only on the appearance of applicants, both hiring managers chose to hire men twice as often as women, according to a study from researchers in three top US business schools.

Men outnumber women in technical fields by more than four to one. A good deal of this disparity is due to biases by both sexes when it comes to hiring new employees, according to researchers who watched how technology managers behaved, rather than asking their opinions in a survey.

That result, reinforced by similar conclusions from half a dozen major studies of gender bias in STEM hiring and education, make it clear that the gender gap can't be blamed on women simply finding STEM careers unattractive.

Women are a minority in STEM jobs because they are kept out by hiring managers of both genders, who prefer to hire men for math- or technology-intensive positions, according to Ernesto Reuben, assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School and lead author of the study, "How Stereotypes Impair Women's Careers in Science."

Reuben said in a Columbia press release on the study: Studies that seek to answer why there are more men than women in STEM fields typically focus on women's interests and choices. This may be important, but our experiments show that another culprit of this phenomenon is that hiring managers possess an extraordinary level of gender bias when making decisions and filling positions, often times choosing the less qualified male over a superiorly qualified female.

Despite more than a decade of pressure from government and civil rights groups to balance the ratio, women held only 23 per cent of US jobs focused primarily on skills in science, technology, engineering and math in 2008, according to a study from the federal National Math and Science Initiative.

Hiring managers choose men over women for STEM jobs

The study showed that both men and women are biased against hiring women for STEM jobs.

The study showed that both men and women are biased against hiring women for STEM jobs.

To test the reactions of hiring managers in technology companies, Reuben and colleagues from the Kellogg School of Management and Booth School of Business rounded up 191 hiring managers from technology companies and 150 "candidates" for a job requiring them to add up as many pairs of two-digit numbers as possible in four minutes. Other studies have shown that this test could be performed equally well by women or men.

When candidates were allowed to use the results as evidence of how well they would do on the job, the odds of a woman getting the job improved only about nine per cent.

When hiring managers made a mistake, by hiring the candidate with a lower math-test score during rounds in which candidates were not allowed to brag about their scores, the mistake favoured men more than 90 per cent of the time, Reuben said.

The results, especially the minimal change in bias caused by the inclusion of test scores that gave an indication of competence, show that the mistaken belief that women are less competent in STEM topics than men is deeply seated and difficult to shake, "even when confronted by evidence to the contrary," Reuben said.

Gender bias and discrimination are serious social problems, and gender bias is a direct threat to individual companies and the US economy as a whole, he said. "The end result is... a detriment to these companies for hiring the less-skilled person for the job."

The bias against hiring women worsens a skills shortage that has already outstripped the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering's once-alarming prediction that the US would need a million more working technologists by 2018. In reality, according to the job market analysis firm Burning Glass Technologies, demand for technical skills was already so great in 2013 that, for every college student graduating with a technology degree, there were 2.5 unfilled jobs requiring a technology degree.

The economics writer Cynthia Than countered Reuben's pessimism in a March 3 blog in Quartz. She wrote that women are more interested in STEM fields, and are entering both jobs and schools in higher numbers, than in the past.

Nevertheless, the study concluded that, as long as American hiring managers reject job candidates of one gender twice as often as the other, and for less reason, their employers and the economy as a whole will suffer just as they would at the loss of any other resource.

"Raising awareness of this problem is a step in the right direction," Reuben stated. "Hiring managers need to disassociate themselves from general stereotypes and focus on the candidate. Leaving your personal experiences out of the process will likely land you the best candidate. Otherwise, you are hurting your company."

- Kevin Fogarty
  EE Times





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