The human brain likes shortcuts.
Some of those shortcuts are great. It’s how we know to instinctively run if we hear a snapped twig and a growl in the dark of night. It’s how we can know a friend needs help, simply by the expression on his face, or even how we can easily read a sentence like this:
We cna raed tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Our brians tkae shrutctus.
But some of those brain shortcuts are dangerous. Especially in social interaction. Especially at work. And especially in the hiring process.
Cognitive biases are subjective perceptions that we fall back on as we process information. They are based on instincts or outdated habits of thinking and they impair our ability to objectively observe a person or situation. Unfortunately our hiring processes are riddled with them.
In our research at Mercer, we’ve identified cognitive bias in hiring as a key roadblock to gender diversity in talent and inclusion initiatives.
"One of the things our research shows is that we need to address the individual's behavior, conscious and unconscious biases, as well as the organizational practices that may also have bias,” observed Jill Zimmerman, Mercer Chief People Officer, at our recent When Women Thrive in Media and Entertainment conference.
Here are five cognitive biases that are impacting your ability to hire or promote talented women within your organizations:
- The Affinity Bias
In this bias we tend to hire people like us. Since men are over-represented in many professions and in leadership in many companies, the presence of this will only escalate this problem in the absence of organizational intervention.
- The Inter-Group Bias
This could also be called the “culture fit” bias. This is the bias where we tend to favor people who we perceive are part of our group, and likely to fit in with us in a comfortable way. In one company we worked with, this was manifested by a tendency to hire people who came from the same geographic area and who had graduated from a particular university. This bias disadvantages anyone who is not already in a position of power, because they are unlikely to meet the standards of the group. It leaves out women at a high rate, as well as other minorities and even many men.
- The Confirmation Bias
According to this bias, we will search out, interpret, focus on and remember data in a way that confirms our preconceptions. If we believe women are not as driven to succeed, for example, we will find evidence to support that and perhaps pass on a female candidate. Consider this: widely held wisdom says that women are not as confident as men. This is not true… according to a 2018 study by Harvard Business Review, women are not lower in confidence overall—but they do tend to appear less confident, due to how we perceive confidence to manifest. Hiring managers are predisposed to hire confident candidates and pass on those who they perceive have lower esteem.
- The Halo Effect
In this bias we observe a positive attribute of someone and use it to assess everything else about that person or thing. In hiring, this often manifests as a tendency to assume an attractive person is also bright, kind, industrious, charming, and generally a desirable hire, while an unattractive person is often seen as less bright or pleasant, and undesirable. This bias—which is influenced by attractiveness, age, body type, race and ethnicity, among others— has been shown to disproportionately affect women. It also negatively impacts those who are overweight—which is more likely among women than men in the U.S. In a 2017 study, only 15.6% of hiring managers said they would consider hiring an obese woman, and 20% described her as “lazy”. That same study revealed appearance biases against women of color, older women and women who frown.
- Gender Stereotyping Bias
Consider this story: “I was typing up notes from one of our scientists when I got a call from my nanny, who was at the doctor. Upset, I rushed home to be there before the kids got home from school.” In this story, as you read it, were the scientist and the doctor male? Were the nanny and the speaker female? That’s the gender stereotyping bias at work. We all fall prey to it, to some degree. And if you think it’s getting better, you may not be right—one study of gender bias from 1983-2014 actually found that stereotypes for women got worse, not better. This affects not only what we think people are capable of, but what they’ve achieved. According to one study, women’s performance reviews contained nearly 2x the amount of language about being “nice “ or “warm” than men’s.
Here’s one more bias, and perhaps this is the most insidious, for those of us who are working to eliminate bias in our organizations: the Bias Blind Spot, or the failure to recognize your own cognitive biases. How many of us are carrying biases even while we are working to educate others?
It’s critical for us to establish clear business imperatives in our organizations in order to help filter against and avoid these biases, improve diversity and inclusion overall, and remove barriers to gender equality.
Want to learn more about gender diversity and hiring? Discover insights from Mercer’s When Women Thrive.