Unveiling Gender Bias in the Recruitment Process
Unveiling Gender Bias in the Recruitment Process
Author: Danah Abboud - Programme Manager, Anti-Corruption Best Practices Programme and Diversity in Business Leadership Programme

On June 6, 2023, the Pearl Initiative convened its 5th working group meeting for the Diversity in Business Leadership Working Group, comprising of leading companies in the region, including Chalhoub, Dana Gas, Shell, Crescent Enterprises, PwC, Marsh and SABIC. The focus of the meeting was to address the critical issue of conscious and unconscious bias in the recruitment process, building upon the progress made in integrating women into the workforce while recognising the potential for further growth and improvement.

Despite commendable efforts in promoting gender inclusivity, the employment rate for working-age women in the GCC stands at 40% as of 2022, highlighting an opportunity to bridge the gap with the 64% average observed across OECD countries. This calls for a comprehensive analysis of existing hiring practices to ensure fair and equal opportunities for all individuals.

During the meeting, the working group discussed global experiments that examined gender bias in hiring. These experiments revealed gender and parenthood-related discrimination in callback rates of job applicants with women and mothers less likely to receive a call back when compared with a male applicant of a similar CV or those who are perceived to have no children. Therefore, bias can manifest itself even before the recruitment process begins, affecting the evaluation and acceptance of job applications. The working group also examined the impact of language on individuals’ perceptions and application decisions, with women less likely to apply to job descriptions containing stereotypically masculine language. These findings underscored the complex nature of bias, which goes beyond overt discrimination, and emphasised the need to address subtle forms of bias that can hinder women from realizing their full potential.

In addition to analysing global trends, working group members raised various challenges that they have personally noted throughout their careers. One key challenge is  the influence of societal norms on perceptions, with societal messages often perpetuating subliminal biases that shape how men and women perceive themselves and each other. The issue of conscious bias and its implications on women’s freedom of choice was explored, with a focus on challenging cultural norms that may limit opportunities. Cultural understandings, such as the notion that “women need to be protected by men”, may have originated with good intention but their application in the workplace can limit a woman’s choice and opportunity.

A bigger challenge is addressing internalised unconscious bias – where a hiring manager may not even be consciously aware that their perceptions are leading them to discriminate against women or certain groupings of women. It was interesting to note that unconscious bias     can be internalised by women themselves, leading to unintentional propagation of biased attitudes and behaviors. Some female managers carry unconscious bias towards younger female employees, influenced by cultural or societal expectations. Therefore, identifying and addressing all internalised gender bias- by both men and women- is critical for cultivating an equitable and diverse workplace.

The working group recognises the challenge posed by conscious and unconscious bias in the hiring process and the need   to continuously review and propose effective strategies to mitigate its impact. The next working group meeting will delve into the best practices adopted by the participating organisations to address and mitigate bias within their own hiring processes. As the working group continues to address these challenges, they also recognise that there are other facets of bias in recruitment that need to be explored and addressed.

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