Down the Recruitment Rabbit Hole: Why Stereotyping Is Bad for Business

By Bernadette Eichner - Jul. 10, 2014
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I was recently invited by a company experiencing very high staff turnover to discuss how I may be able to assist with their recruitment challenges.   Having been around the traps as a Consultant of some repute for more years than I care to mention, the first question I asked was “What seems to be the biggest problem?”  Their response: “Getting decent candidates – there are none around”.  I haven’t got enough fingers and toes to count how many times I have heard this in my career as an organisational consultant and professional recruiter.

My next question, “How do you approach your recruitment at the moment?” was answered with “Well, the first thing we do is sort the resumes into two piles – boys and girls”, justified with “women are too unreliable, not focussed enough and can’t put in the hours because they have the big man and the little man at home”.  As if this wasn’t bad enough, the spokesperson then went on to explain that they further cull the “boy’s pile” because there were certain cultural backgrounds that “just don’t work in our business”.

Sitting at the boardroom table, I kept thinking I was in some parallel universe, stuck in the middle of a Salvador Dali painting, serving tea to the Queen of Hearts down Alice’s rabbit hole or something equally as discombobulating.  This was Sydney, a vibrant, culturally diverse international city.  It was 2014.  The client was under 45 years of age.  What on earth was going on?  Have we not progressed at all?  I could feel my breath shortening and my chest tightening and the “fight or flight” part of my brain was screaming “Fight! Fight!”

At no point had the skills and experience required for the role been given as criteria for shortlisting applications.  I’m sure these critical factors would come into play once the interview process was underway but how could this organisation be sure they were interviewing the most suitable candidates when they had unilaterally discounted almost two-thirds of the applications on spurious grounds!

Unfortunately we see stereotyping at play every day in the decision-making of Hiring Managers across corporate Australia and despite concerted efforts to educate and legislate, the myths prevail.

The big three are Sexism, Racism and Ageism.

Sexism – stereotyping based on Gender

Unbelievably, after years of fighting for equal recognition for women, and legislation designed to prevent it, this is still an issue in 2014.   Despite extensive research proving otherwise, women are still seen as more costly to employ, less reliable and less ambitious than men, and not as primed for success.  These incorrect assumptions, or negative stereotypes influence us without us even realising – we are so accustomed to a male dominated culture that we become unaware of our blindspots where it comes to gender stereotyping in our hiring decisions.

The facts speak for themselves:

  • Earnings – The Workplace Gender Equity Agency reports that on average, women working full time in Australia earn 17.6% less than men working full time.  Female graduate salaries are 90.9% of male graduate salaries in Australia.  Average superannuation payments for women are 43.1% less than men.  These statistics are reflected in data from both the USA and the UK.  So it’s not an Australian thing – it’s a gender thing.
  • Education  –  Of all women aged 20-24 in Australia, 87.8% have attained year 12 qualifications or above, compared to 84.1% of men in the same age bracket.  Of all women aged 25-29, 39.2% have achieved a bachelor degree or above, compared to 31.8% of men of the same age. So it’s not true that women are not as well educated as men.
  • Productivity – According to a recent study by independent research consultancy the Ponemon Institute, women employees in the US work harder and longer than men do, and leave their desks far less frequently than men.  These findings have been replicated in other first world, English-speaking countries.

The truth is that paying attention to gender equality in your workplace actually reduces staff turnover, improves productivity and increases revenue.  The World Economic Forum has found a strong correlation between a country’s competitiveness and how it educates and uses its female talent.  It states: “…empowering women means a more efficient use of a nation’s human talent endowment and…reducing gender inequality enhances productivity and economic growth. Over time, therefore, a nation’s competitiveness depends, among other things, on whether and how it educates and utilizes its female talent.”

If paying attention to gender equality can do this for a country, imagine what it could do for your business!

Racism – stereotyping based on ethnic and cultural backgrounds

Although equal opportunity is enshrined in Australian legislation, we white folks still don’t seem to “get it”.  Job seekers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds continue to experience racism and discrimination when it comes to employment.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over a quarter (26%) of Australia’s population was born overseas and a further 20% have at least one overseas-born parent.  Collectively, Australians come from over 200 different countries and speak over 200 languages. We are one of the most diverse populations in the world.  The statistics for the USA and UK tell a similar story.

The most common veil for racism is the candidate’s “English speaking skills are not the best” backed up by “no local experience” and “qualifications are not recognised here”.  And yet very often the candidate offered the job has irrelevant experience and no qualifications.  Their greatest asset is an English sounding name.

Employers would be wise to think more expansively than this.  Creativity and productivity increase when people from diverse cultures and with different approaches work together to solve common problems. International language skills can benefit businesses operating in today’s global economy, and innovative new processes can result when people from diverse backgrounds with different experiences work together. Additionally, a diverse workforce can result in stronger customer and community loyalty, particularly in a diverse society such as Australia.

Ageism – stereotyping based on age

Unlike sexism and racism, which get a run in the press every now and then, ageism has been top of the pops in the Australian news recently with the current government’s proposal to raise the retirement age to 70, thereby limiting people’s access to their superannuation or the pension.  This idea of working until your bones break to keep food on the table would be palatable if the jobs were there for people to have.  But the reality is the employment landscape is rather bleak for this group.

Despite the facts that discrimination on the grounds of age is illegal in Australia and that studies have found older workers tend to be more stable, more productive, take fewer sick days than younger employees and improve a company’s knowledge base, 62% of jobseekers aged over 55 have been told they are “too old to be considered”. While confirming that discrimination against workers over 45 is alive and well, these studies show that, like racism, and contrary to research findings, the discrimination is based in stereotypical myths around team fit, ability to learn and productivity.

So, let’s get over our belief that “male, white and young is best” and look at the facts.  Slightly more than half the Australian population is female.  Almost half of us are either migrants, mostly from non-English speaking backgrounds, or first generation Australians.  About 14% are over 65 and not working and about 19% are under 15 and (in this country at least) are not down a mine or working in a factory somewhere.

You do the maths and ask yourself “Does it make sense for us to make hiring decisions based on outdated, discriminatory stereotyping?”  You could be discounting almost 75% of your applicant base and compromising your organisation’s productivity and revenue in the process.

Marketplace Manager, building our recruiter community. I've more years experience in the global recruitment industry than I care to mention. Known to sprout Shakespeare.


Bernadette Eichner

Marketplace Manager, building our recruiter community. I've more years experience in the global recruitment industry than I care to mention. Known to sprout Shakespeare.

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