Gender Equality Management Assessment



Gender bias in hiring, promoting, and rewarding employees

Gender bias are actions that stem from our own pre-designed ideas about a social role that a particular gender should take. In this expert piece we will focus mainly on bias that has a proven impact on the recruitment, promotion and reward processes in companies or organisations. Scientific research[1] has shown that gender bias is one of the biases embedded in organizational and decision-making processes. It is a result of our brain developing cognitive shortcuts to effectively navigate the complex reality we live in. Gender bias is outside of our control and reflects patters we acquire through society and culture we are immersed into – thus reflecting the very state of this society. This is a normal phenomenon, which, however, can have undesirable consequences especially for individuals in specific life situations.

The origin of gender bias in an individual can be found in our childhood. Children are constantly observing the world, observing the people and differences among them, and judging by what they see and hear about those differences. Until their first birthday most babies can distinguish between male and female faces, but adults are the ones who tell them what role should a certain gender undertake. Children learn that their gender is important because we are constantly emphasizing it in ordinary conversations.

When children become aware of the importance of gender in the adult world, they begin to draw black-white conclusions about its meaning – they formulate simplistic and rigid rules about what being a man or woman represents. These simplified rules are stereotypes. They are a cognitive shortcut; our brains are built for quick decisions. Based on these examples children look upon the world of adults around them and may decide that women care for them when they get ill, as they are more compassionate and nurturing. Men go bravely into battle, take action and allow themselves to be loud or angry. These traits are well described by the concept of masculinity / agency and femininity / communality. Agency is a characteristic of the male gender stereotype and reflects the fundamental orientation of a male individual towards himself, while communality is a characteristic of the female gender stereotype and reflects the fundamental orientation of the female individual towards others.[2]

Based on what they perceive in the environment, children decide that there are many essential and innate differences between men and women. They start to build up stereotypical ideas about the ‘nature’ of each gender, which they also subjugate and adapt to – partly because they are rewarded for such behavior. Research shows that parents (especially fathers) prioritize offering their children gender-appropriate toys (such as a girl’s cooking kit and a boy’s tool kit), and in turn discourage them from stereotypically inappropriate toys. Further, research shows that parents are more tolerant when a son is physically abusive to peers and siblings than when a girl does the same thing. Even peers among children are punishing each other, sometimes cruelly, when someone violates  gender rules and are often excluded on the basis of gender. One study looked at preschool boys while playing and found that when boys showed interest in stereotypically girl toys, such as cooking games, doll houses, dress up games, other boys interrupted them by mockery and sometimes, violence. As children continue to engage in such a behavior, this behaviour becomes routine and part of their (gender) identity.

As children get older (age 8 to 10) they develop cognitive skills and many begin to realize that gender norms are largely based on social rules (so-called social conventions). But about this same time, children also begin to develop the concept of morality in their thinking: what is right and what is wrong. Stereotypes attain a moral note, e. g. a child would think that girls are expected to be restrained and shy and boys to be determined simply because “this is correct,” says Campbell Leaper, a psychologist from the University of California, Santa Cruz. And here lies the main problem: once stereotypes become embedded in their subconscious, it is easier to conclude that men currently have higher social status and higher social positions due to ‘biological’ or ‘natural’ reasons. And they continue to believe that as adults: e.g. parents repeatedly rate their sons as more intelligent than their daughters.

The problem arises when stereotypes gain more meaning than they should have: they are an impulse, influenced by simplistic images we have received and built up in our childhoods by observing the existing state of the world around us which is fundamentally resting on current power relationships (not just among genders, but also the rich and the poor, races, nationalities). This is called bias – basing our actions upon believing that a gender stereotype is true and natural. Gender bias is therefore very often unconscious and unintentional, but it still influences staffing and management decisions and, as a result, must be appropriately constrained for our businesses to function successfully – unconscious gender bias has proven to be particularly problematic in the world of education and work. The greater the perceived discrepancy between the person’s gender characteristics and the job requirements within the workplace, the more biased is the assessment in the process of recruitment, selection, assessment and promotion of our employees.

A groundbreaking study conducted at Yale found that evaluators for leadership positions were more likely to hire John than Jennifer, despite having an identical resume. 127 scientists unknowingly participated in the study in which they received a request for evaluation of a candidate for the position of lab manager in several different disciplines. Their evaluation was supposed to be based on the candidate’s “ability”, with the goal to assess the starting salary that the candidate could expect. Both men and women’ evaluation favoured male candidate, which was on average offered a higher starting salary: Jennifer was offered an annual salary of $26,507, on the other hand, John would receive an initial annual salary of $30,238. The same study also showed that our gender does not affect our bias – both (male) assessors and (female) assessors assessed John’s curriculum vitae higher, despite being identical to Jennifer’s. The evaluators did not use gender-based reasons for different assessments, always basing their judgment on the excuse that Jennifer was simply not competent enough.[3]

Research conducted elsewhere shows similar results. Management positions are stereotypically perceived to require more aggressive achievement-orientation and emotional firmness – traits typically attributed to men, which is a barrier for women. Looking at the level of staffing this is reflected in the recruitment and selection process – women are less likely to be employed directly by men than men (Elsesser and Lever, 2011) because, in the absence of additional information about the individual, reliance on stereotypes becomes greater.[4] Furthermore, by reviewing the documentation of performance evaluation and promotion of women and men in managerial positions, women had to achieve significantly higher performance appraisals than men to achieve promotion. Women’s performance assessments have also been more closely linked to their advancement, indicating not only higher but also more rigorous promotion standards for women.[5] Similar pattern is also observed in rewarding processes. Emilio Castilla and Stephen Bernard, scientists at MIT and Indiana University, conducted a study that evaluated receiving financial awards for performance in organizations. Participants in the experiment were presented with a fake company, ServiceOne. Through the experiment the participants had to evaluate employees on the principle of a higher bonus based on greater merit for the success of the company in the current financial period. Test participants to the experiment awarded an average of $50 higher financial bonus to male participants.

The main issue surrounding unconscious gender bias is hidden in its name: employers are not aware of it, which awards them with a sense of meritocracy, hence prevents them from paying attention to biases in their selection processes. Paradoxically non-awareness leads to inequality. Understanding the implications of gender bias, along with educating employees about the importance of diversity, can reduce the magnitude of unfair recruitment, promotion and reward practices in businesses. In doing so, GEMA certificate contributes to introducing into business or organisation’s culture those processes that raise awareness of gender bias among employees. At the same time, it deepens already existing processes that contribute to carefully managed work environment, corporate culture and appropriate training of employees, especially those in charge of recruiting, promoting and rewarding other employees in the company. As McKinsay reported in 2015, eliminating gender bias leads to 15-30% higher likehood for financial returns above the national average. Gender equality in the workplace is also linked to improved productivity, greater organizational performance, increased company’s ability to attract talent and retain employees. Last but not least, it leads to enhanced business or organization’s reputation.

[1] Alison Wood Brooks, Laura Huang, Sarah Wood Kearney, Fiona E. Murray. 2014. Investors prefer entrepreneurial ventures pitched by attractive men. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (12) 4427-4431.

[2] Svetek, Mojca. 2019. Spolni stereotipi in diskriminacija žensk na trgu dela: psihološki pogled. Psihološka obzorja 28, 1-10.

[3] Corinne A. Moss-Racusina, John F. Dovidiob, Victoria L. Brescollc, Mark J. Grahama and Jo Handelsmana. 2012. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109 (41) 16474-16479. Available at:

[4] Svetek, Mojca. 2019. Spolni stereotipi in diskriminacija žensk na trgu dela: psihološki pogled. Psihološka obzorja 28, 1-10.

[5] Ibid.