The Citizens’ Assembly has today voted for a program of reforms on gender equality in Ireland, including some recommendations around extending gender quotas, and ahead of the predictable backlash for gender quotas, I want to share some thoughts on the inevitable “best person for the job” rhetoric.
A frequent refrain when people mention gender quotas is that it should just be “the best person for the job”, and that gender shouldn’t matter, but the people who make this argument rarely pause to consider or explore the sexist ideal they prop up with this statement. Let’s dig into that now.
Studies have shown that when people are blinded to gender, the choices they make represent the actual spectrum of gender much more accurately. We see it in jobs, we see it in award nominations, we see it in all aspects of life. Which means that something different is happening when panels aren’t blinded. We’ve seen that panels are affected by unconscious bias, and end up hiring those who look like them, sound like them, etc. And we’ve seen that people who don’t fit the already established “mold” get left out of this process – even before we step into the interview, we have seen that biased algorithms filter out CVs of women and people of colour, and job descriptions discourage applications from underrepresented groups. We face an uphill battle to improve gender equality in hiring.
Why not just more unconscious bias training?
So why quotas? Why not just more training? Can’t we just trust that people will address their unconscious biases, or wait until we reach a more balanced representation organically?
No. We can’t.
Unconscious bias training remains a controversial topic. When people propose unconscious bias training, it is often met with resistance and mockery, and people questioning whether the training leads to real change. There have been some studies to examine the effect of unconscious bias training and right now, the evidence suggests that while the training does raise awareness of these biases, the overall effect is not translating into significant behavioural changes. It is worthwhile, but it is not enough.
And so here we are, with mandated gender quotas. Why? Frankly, because for years, you were asked nicely and you ignored it. Many of the studies which show gender bias in hiring are decades old, this is not a new problem, and people have been raising it for a very very long time. Maybe you were given training about why diverse hiring matters, about unconscious bias, and you ignored it or didn’t internalise it enough to action it. Maybe you’ve never examined your job descriptions to see why all of your candidates look the same. So now your hand has to be forced with quotas, because you won’t do it voluntarily, and people should not have to wait ten more lifetimes for you to decide it suits you to make a change.
But don’t you think it should be the best person?
If we loop back to our original thesis, that it should always be just “the best person for the job” regardless of gender, I actually agree. It should be the “best” person. But the unspoken part of this is that you are saying that this is currently how things are actually done, that this idea of “best person regardless” is the current status quo. And there, I must firmly disagree.
When you say “the best person” and imply that that’s what is happening right now, you’re propping up a myth, a status quo that isn’t. The status quo isn’t always hiring the best person, it’s hiring the one you like, and very often, the one you like is the one you match. And when the hiring panel is predominantly old white men, guess who matches them?
Your status quo is a myth
When you say “best person for the job” this is the unasked question which shows the problem with your statement: If we currently hire “the best person regardless of gender” then why are all of those best people white men? For decades? Really, not a single other person was better? Honestly? If, at the moment, the best person already always got the job, then why is there still such a lack of diversity in hiring? What is the reason?
Please, honestly, examine this thing that you are implicitly saying. If you think that right now, we always hire the best person regardless of gender, then you are also saying that the current gender representation everywhere is an accurate reflection of skill and qualification. You are saying the the only bias which exists is one which would cause someone to hire an incompetent woman over a man because “diversity” when a literal embarrassment of riches of evidence shows the very opposite. And if you don’t understand why such a statement might cause me to raise my eyebrows, well you’ve got rather a lot of catching up to do.
Can we completely eliminate bias from hiring? Maybe not. And maybe not soon. But gender quotas can force us to shine a light on how we currently hire, and make people think outside their current status quo.
- People with typically African-American names on their CVs do not get as many callbacks as people with “white” names: nber.org/papers/w9873
- Blind hiring processes in orchestras increased the number of women who were eventually hired significantly: https://gap.hks.harvard.edu/orchestrating-impartiality-impact-%E2%80%9Cblind%E2%80%9D-auditions-female-musicians
- This review both reaffirms that gender bias affects hiring and that interventions such as bias training have a positive effect: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4554714/
- Here, the Harvard Business Review established that if there is only one woman in your candidate pool, statistically there is no chance she will be hired: https://hbr.org/2016/04/if-theres-only-one-woman-in-your-candidate-pool-theres-statistically-no-chance-shell-be-hired
- Without provision of information about candidates other than their appearance, men are twice more likely to be hired for a mathematical task than women: https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/03/05/1314788111
- Multiple studies have shown that the way you look matters tremendously when it comes to hiring, with conventionally “attractive” people doing better. This study shows a bias against people with any facial disfigurement: https://news.rice.edu/2011/11/09/looks-do-matter-2/
- The impact of gendered language in job descriptions: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21381851/
- In their own job listings, ZipRecruiter found that job listings with gender neutral language received 42% more applications: https://www.ziprecruiter.com/blog/removing-gendered-keywords-gets-you-more-applicants/
- Amazon had to scrap their plans to introduce AI resume filtering after it discovered the algorithm had learned to filter out all of the women: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-amazon-com-jobs-automation-insight-idUSKCN1MK08G
- Unconscious bias training has not generally led to explicit changes in measures or in behaviour: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2019-31306-001