In the 1970s, the Boston Symphony Orchestra started to implement a blind audition experiment where players were concealed behind a screen to eliminate gender bias and increase diversity. Despite this measure, the numbers barely moved at first.
It wasn’t until players were asked to remove their shoes that women started to make it to next round of auditions. Just the sound of heels clicking on stage resulted in a hiring bias against women regardless of ability.
It’s this story that reminds us that employers must fully realise the role and influence they hold over the entire hiring and career progression process. Organizations must lead by example in moulding company culture and policy, rather than wait for employee, education or policy to change.
The conversation about gender equality has been pushed to the forefront, sparking changes across multiple industries, and igniting greater awareness about gender bias. But despite these improvements, huge gaps remain.
A McKinsey study titled ‘COVID-19 and gender equality’ showed that women were more vulnerable to COVID-19 economic effects, with job loss rates about 1.8 times higher than for men. Additionally, they were more at risk than men due to disproportionate representation of women in sectors negatively affected by the crisis.
We know that better gender balance in organisations makes good business sense. Companies that have gender diversity are 21 per cent more likely to have above-average financial returns, according to market research company Forrester. Keeping in mind the known economic benefits and the potential to drive innovative growth opportunities from both a social and economic standpoint, striving for gender balance is a clear necessity.
If we look at the technology industry I work within, a widely cited reason for this disparity is the pipeline problem - suggesting that the pool of female talent with STEM education is limited. There is some truth to this – a PwC study found women represent only 32 per cent of STEM graduates worldwide.
But the reality is educational qualification in technology isn’t always a prerequisite to join a tech company. Almost six in 10 women in technology did not study computing in university, according to Accenture and Girls Who Code research.
In fact, the problem starts earlier on; a major cause being the stereotypes influencing the career choices and of women. Research from UNESCO shows that starting in their early teens, the performance of boys and girls in STEM-related subjects begins to shift.
Social bias, classroom dynamics, educational material, policies and economic opportunities are some factors driving this behaviour. Overtime, this compounds to produce a performance gap as well as a representation gap when it comes to boys and girls choosing to pursue these subjects.
Companies can influence this at an early stage by getting involved in programmes that focus on engaging youths and building interest in STEM among girls at a young age.
Return to work
The gender problem persists the higher we go up the seniority funnel, where women returning to work after taking leave for childcare tend to drop out of the workforce, or too often do not return. Gaps in their CV from anywhere between three to 10 years makes rehiring after a work hiatus a significant challenge, especially in the technology sector which is often disrupted by huge advances.
Corporations are often too risk-averse to hire someone without specific experience, no matter their background. But leaders and employees can change this pattern. Companies can also partner with organisations and social enterprises that offer training programmes and support women in getting back into the workforce.
Apart from improving the male-to-female ratio, these partnerships expand companies’ access to a huge and valuable talent pool, especially for industries that so often face talent shortage.
Some industries are admittedly more male-dominated, and have to be aware that subtle gender bias can come through in the hiring process and the way roles are communicated. Research from the University of Waterloo published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has shown that some language in job descriptions can be perceived as more male-oriented, which deters many women from applying, as it was less appealing and had a lower sense of job fit.
Additionally, with advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), companies have enormous amounts of data at their fingertips. This should be leveraged to help make more informed decisions that allow companies to mitigate bias through the hiring process.
We are already seeing this play out, with some companies incorporating AI features to help recruiters hire more diverse candidates and intelligent chatbots that interview and evaluate job candidates, avoiding any unconscious bias.
Taking steps to mitigate gender biased language, together with retraining programmes for returners and youth STEM education, can begin to correct the imbalances with far reaching effects. Gender parity is not a zero-sum game, where one group wins and the other loses.
While regional governments have made many significant advances to drive gender equality through laws and regulations, there is still more to be done. Organizations need to recognise the crucial role they play in bringing about change.
If we work together, we can help transform the region’s gender parity landscape for the better.