British Columbia

Employers who ignore gender bias promote fewer women, says UBC psychologist

The study found that both men and women tend to demonstrate gender bias.

The study found both men and women tend to demonstrate implicit bias

Women remain shut out of many sectors, from big tech to the trades, due to workplace and hiring discrimination, says workplace consultant Lisa Durante. (Shutterstock / fizkes)

When employers ignore gender bias, they're more likely to discriminate against women while hiring, according to a new study from a psychologist at the University of British Columbia. 

Toni Schmader, a UBC professor and Canada Research chair in social psychology, drew upon real-life hiring decisions made at France's National Committee for Scientific Research (CNRS). 

She found that hiring committee members of both genders tended to associate men with science more than women. However, committees who acknowledged the professional barriers women face were more likely to check their implicit gender bias, resulting in more equal hiring outcomes. Meanwhile, those who believed "science isn't sexist" promoted fewer women, according to the study. 

"When people recognize women might face barriers, they are more able to put aside their own biases," said Schmader in a UBC news release.

But that doesn't mean women have an advantage over their male competitors.

"We don't see any favourability for or against male or female candidates among those committees who believe they need to be vigilant to the possibility that biases could be creeping into their decision-making."

'Science = male' mentality starts early on

To test for gender bias among hiring committees, researchers used an "implicit association test," which showed words on a screen and measured how quickly participants could assign them to a certain category. 

People who demonstrated a significant prejudice against women in science paired female-related words with scientific language more slowly than they would male-associated terms.

Schmader said society cultivates this bias at a young age. 

"There's research suggesting that you can document a "think science, think male" implicit association showing up with kids as early as elementary school," she said.

"If we don't see a lot of women who are role models in science, then we learn to associate science more with men than women," Schmader added. 

Gender gap present across all professions

Lisa Durante wasn't surprised by the study's findings. 

Discriminatory hiring practices remain a persistent problem across all professions, the Toronto-based workplace consultant told CBC's Daybreak North

Durante highlighted the "bro" culture the tech sector has widely come to be notorious for, as well as the lack of women working in the trades.

"Look at construction," she said. "We continue to think that it's men that have to fulfil these roles, but that's not true because there are many more women who are going through the skilled trades and are entering those industries."

According to recent data from Statistics Canada, women made only marginal gains in the trades between 2008 and 2018. Of the 934,000 people working in industrial, electrical and construction trades in 2008, 34,600 — or 3.7 per cent — were women.

Durante encouraged employers to consider taking on unconscious bias training, though critics have cast doubt on the effectiveness of that strategy. 

As for women who may feel they're a victim of gender bias in the workplace, Durante said they should raise the issue with their employer or colleagues. 

"If a decision was made that you feel may have been based on some kind of bias, have that conversation to ask why."

With files from Brandie Weikle