Short and Scholarly: Gender Stereotypes and Transparency in the Employee Selection Process

As Francis Bacon put it, “knowledge is power.” But when it comes to the consequences of transparency in the employee selection process, a new study suggests that maybe ignorance is bliss – at least for some.

Many hiring managers and test administrators use transparency the talent selection process – providing candidates with information regarding the subject matter of their assessment ahead of time – in an attempt to level the playing field among candidates.

However, recent findings in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment challenge the assumption that this transparency actually does increase fairness.

In their study, “Unintended Consequences of Transparency During Personnel Selection: Benefitting some candidates, but harming others?”, authors Vanessa Jacksch and Ute-Christine Klehe discuss the adverse effects transparency in the assessment process can have on candidates who are the targets of certain stereotypes.

The research focuses on two studies. The first study discusses the varying effects of transparency on men versus women in relation to planning and leadership skills assessments, and the second study discusses the role of stigma consciousness in relation to the relative performance of men and women in the talent selection process.

Study 1: The Influence of Stereotype Threat in the Talent Acquisition Process

In the first study, a stereotype “consists of a target (i.e., a social group) and a specific content, attribute, domain, or any other factor that the stereotype judges.” In order for stereotype threat to occur, people need to be in a situation in which they want to perform well, and in which they are being compared with others; and the stereotype needs to be prominent in regards to that individual’s social group.

While interviewers don’t typically tell candidates outright about a stereotype regarding their specific social group, subtle cues present a strong stereotype threat and can inhibit performance just as much, and potentially cause members of the target stereotype feel like the odd man out.

Examples of subtle cues in candidate assessment scenarios include:

  • Being the only female among male participants while completing potentially gender-sensitive material, like a math test
  • Having a member of the comparison group administer the test (i.e., a male proctor when females are taking a math test)

Additionally, informing participants about the content of a test is a subtle cue that could influence results in the context of an assessment.

Method

The Influence of Stereotype Threat in the Talent Acquisition Process

Researchers selected 177 participants, 107 of which were female. Participants filled out a short online questionnaire regarding whether they think a gender stereotype exists within society about the performance dimensions planning and leadership. Both male and female participants indicated they did not feel there was a specific stereotype regarding the dimension of planning, but that they felt there was a leadership stereotype regarding women as worse leaders than men.

Participants took part in a one-on-one personnel selection training in which they played the role of a customer service representative in a hospital emergency room. Each participant interacted with virtual patients, answering questions and reacting to a variety of situations.

The participants were divided into three groups; one group received instructions that didn’t disclose the nature of the dimensions being tested, another group was notified their planning skills would be assessed, and the third group was notified their leadership skills would be assessed.

A trained experimenter observed the performance of the candidates, looking for examples of desirable and undesirable behaviors representative of both leadership and planning.

Desirable characteristics of planning included:

  • Ability to set priorities
  • Ability to structure information correctly
  • The ability to develop and gain an understanding of the situation

Desirable characteristics of leadership included:

  • Participants’ assertiveness
  • Emotional stability
  • Stress resistance
  • Decisiveness

Results of Study 1

The study showed that while transparency on the dimension of planning was beneficial to both male and female candidates, transparency on the dimension of leadership had a negative effect on women’s performance, but not that of male participants.

Study 2: The Effects of Stigma Consciousness in the Talent Selection Process

Some 24 percent of all leading positions in companies across the globe are held by women. At some point, these women were able to demonstrate superior leadership skills indicating they were the best fit for the position, suggesting that while the performance of some members of a specific social group might be affected by stereotypes, others may not.

The second study focused on the effects of stigma consciousness among men and women in the talent selection process in regards to leadership skills.

Method

This study proposed that a higher level of transparency around the “leadership” dimension will cause women to score higher on stigma consciousness.

In the study:

  • 79 advanced university students and graduates participated in a 1-day assessment center training
  • 53 of them were females
  • 46% already held a bachelor’s or vocational degree
  • 19% held a master’s degree
  • 5% held a Ph.D.

The Effects of Stigma Consciousness in the Talent Selection Process

Participants were divided into two groups. The variable group was informed their leadership skills would be assessed, while the control group was not provided with this information.

During the study, group members participated in a four-person leaderless group discussion asking them to select a new employee from a list of eight potential candidates. Each individual participant was given a set of rules the group as a whole had to follow, as well as a hidden profile containing relevant information about the candidates they were to choose from. Each individual received different, yet equally relevant information regarding the candidates in the pool from which they were selecting.

Results of Study 2

Members of the control group with nontransparent instructions did not experience a meaningful impact on leadership performance. However, in the group that received transparent instructions, both gender and stigma consciousness were significant predictors of leadership performance. Awareness of stereotypes not only affected the targeted group (women) but it also affected men. Women who were more conscious of the stereotype tended to perform more poorly, while men who were conscious of the stereotype tended to perform better.

Summary: The Greater the Knowledge, the Greater the Doubt

Though transparency has often been viewed as a way to level the playing field among candidates in the talent assessment process, this study illustrates that such transparency can result in advantages to certain social groups that are anything but fair.

The study recommends that employers who are in the process of selecting an applicant for a role typically dominated by males ought to keep in mind that transparency of certain dimensions can undermine the performance of the few female candidates available, while boosting the performance of the male candidates. This would unintentionally perpetuate a wide gender gap in the talent selection process.