This is what Cornell scientists say is the secret to hiring more women

It’s no secret that for decades upon decades it was harder for a qualified woman to land a job across various industries than a qualified man. The list is long, and in retrospect quite shameful. From the worlds of finance and engineering to legal or automotive services, men have found it easier to secure a job and advance their careers for much of recent history.

Things have started to change, slowly but surely, as many companies and industries have introduced sweeping organizational changes and new policies focused on hiring more women and building a more gender-equitable work environment. Undoing centuries of the status quo takes time, though, and many industries are still woefully under-represented when it comes to female-to-male employee ratios.

On the topic of how to speed up this process, a new study recently released by Cornell University has a simple suggestion that all hiring managers should keep in mind. The team at Cornell says that if you want to hire more women, just make your initial job candidate “shortlist” longer.

Let’s take a moment to explain this approach. Whenever a new career opportunity pops up at a particular company, whether that be a new position, promotion, training courses, or a mentorship, it’s very common for hiring managers to first formulate an informal shortlist of potential candidates they feel may be a good fit for the opening. In most cases, these lists consist of in-house employees and/or industry colleagues the hiring manager already knows. 

That’s all well and good from a perspective of pure practicality, but study authors assert that this “informal shortlist” process puts women trying to find employment in male-dominated industries at a serious disadvantage. When a hiring manager combs through their mind for potential job candidates, chances are in a male-dominated industry all or most of the people that come to mind will be men.

“Our research investigates informal shortlists,” says study co-author Brian Lucas, assistant professor in the ILR School. “These are the initial shortlists that hiring managers generate on their own and bring with them into the formal recruitment process. For positions with no formal process, the informal list is the final list.”

This phenomenon is a prime example of why it isn’t as easy as “flipping a switch” when it comes to undoing gender inequality in the workplace. For so many industries, men outnumber women to such a high degree that hiring managers may not even be consciously aware of what they’re doing while compiling these shortlists.

Luckily, the research team behind these findings says all it takes to help more women get hired in these industries is for hiring managers to spend some more time on their informal shortlists. Across 10 separate experiments, if a hiring manager was told to produce an “extended shortlist” of job candidates, that longer list included more women.

“We consistently found more female candidates in the extended lists,” Lucas explains. “This longer shortlist intervention is a low-cost and simple way to support gender equity efforts.”

Statistically, whenever a participating hiring manager looking to fill a job in a male-dominated industry expanded their informal shortlist, the ratio of women-to-men increased from 1-in-5.5 initially to 1-in-4 in the extended version (representing a jump from 15% to 20% female candidates).

“It is important to elucidate the barriers to gender equity at all stages of the professional advancement pathway,” Lucas concludes. “Our research shines a light on the gender biases that can operate at the informal shortlist generation stage and offers a simple and low-cost way to attenuate the gender bias.”

The full study can be found here, published in Nature Human Behaviour.