Fifty Years of Gender Bias
When it comes to hiring decisions, people vastly overestimate how much gender bias there is - against both sexes
How much gender bias is there in hiring decisions? Has gender bias in hiring decisions declined over the last half-century? And how accurate are people’s beliefs about levels of gender bias in hiring decisions? These are some of the questions that inspired a fascinating new paper by Michael Schaerer and colleagues, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
The paper reported on two related studies. The first was a pre-registered meta-analysis of field studies looking at gender bias in hiring decisions. Field studies are studies where fake job applications are submitted to real companies, with everything about the applications held constant except the variable of interest - in this case, the sex of the applicant. By counting the number of callbacks received for female vs. male applications, researchers can measure ambient levels of gender bias. Schaerer and colleagues set out to meta-analyze all the field studies they could get their hands on - that is, to combine them all into one giant study. They ended up with 85 studies spanning 26 countries, 44 years, and nearly 400,000 fake applications. The studies covered male-dominated professions (e.g., engineer, truck driver), female-dominated professions (e.g., HR professional, nurse), and gender-balanced professions (e.g., graphic designer, lab worker).
Schaerer and colleagues’ second study was a forecasting survey. The researchers asked a large group of people – both laypeople and academics – to predict the results of their meta-analysis prior to crunching the numbers. (Full disclosure: I was one of the forecasters.) By comparing the predictions to the actual results, Schaerer and co. could assess the accuracy of people’s beliefs about gender bias in hiring.
The results were fascinating and surprising. Starting with the male-dominated and gender-balanced fields, Schaerer and colleagues found significant bias in favor of male applicants in the mid-1970s, which declined steadily over the next few decades and had essentially evaporated by 2009. A tentative exploratory analysis suggested that, after 2009, there was no gender bias in male-dominated fields and a small bias in favor of females in gender-balanced fields.