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Policy focus – honest job descriptions

There is no single organisational policy change that would suddenly propel us to roughly 50% female representation in decision-making bodies. But, as they say, every little helps. In this blog, I’ll look at job descriptions and research which proposes how one area of policy could be tweaked to make it easier for organisations to progress competent women.

Whether for external roles or internal promotions, job descriptions can have unexpected effects on potential candidates. It is probably not the first time you have heard the finding that, “men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.” The widely-quoted statistic comes from a Hewlett Packard report and has sometimes been used to suggest that women’s lack of progress is due to their inability to apply for promotions as readily as men. Women’s leadership expert Tara Sophia Mohr was skeptical of this conclusion, so conducted a survey asking over a thousand men and women, “if you decided not to apply for a job because you did not meet all of the qualifications, why did you not apply?” Her findings were published in Harvard Business Review in August 2014.

By far the most common reason given for not applying (for 46.4% men and 40.6% women) was a desire not to waste time and energy since, not meeting the qualifications, they thought that they would not be hired. This points to the conclusion that all prospective applicants would benefit from better information. Many job descriptions do not describe the most basic requirements, but the ideal candidate. A cursory search returns dozens of articles advising HR professionals to “think about your ideal candidate when writing your job description”, “sit down with the hiring manager to find out what they’re looking for from an ideal candidate”, or “focus your recruiting strategy on your ideal candidate.” With all of these employers only looking for ideal candidates, you would be forgiven for wondering how any of us have jobs.... In this context, must-haves can be more like guidelines in the hiring and promotion process. That has to be good news for everyone.

But there was one reason for not applying that stood out for being selected by twice as many women as men: “I was following the guidelines about who should apply.” This seemingly innocuous response points to a particular aspect of women’s socialisation that should not be overlooked. Firstly, Mohr refers to a 2011 McKinsey report that found that, “women are often evaluated for promotions primarily on performance, while men are often promoted on potential.” Mohr links this observation to the experiences of women (along with ethnic minorities and other minority groups) breaking into the workplace since the post-war period, but only if they had a body of evidence to put their competence beyond doubt. “The 20th century saw women break into professional life - but only if they had the right training, the right accreditations. These qualifications were our ticket in, our way of proving we could do the job. We weren’t part of an old boys club in which we’d get the benefit of the doubt.” Secondly, women may identify that applying for a position which may require them to ‘talk up’ their qualifications at interview would put them in a risky position. Research has shown that women tend to face a social penalty for self-promotion, a backlash which gets stronger the greater the overstatement. Overall, if women were to observe these patterns in their own workplaces, it would not be surprising for them to conclude that women need to meet the qualifications to be hired.

Another aspect of the hiring process that psychology and management Professor Mikki Hebl has studied is recommendations. After all, once an applicant has plucked up the courage to apply, a factor in their chances of success is the recommendation - whether a reference for an external appointment or internal feedback for a promotion. Hebl and her team found in a 2018 study, that words and metrics used to evaluate women often differed from those used to evaluate men. They found that women’s recommendations were shorter, contained fewer superlatives and focussed on their kind demeanour and execution rather than their ideas. Albeit their own study concerned applications to an academic institution rather than a law firm, analysis of 624 letters of recommendation found that “doubt raisers” were more common in letters about women and that evaluators rated applicants more negatively if even a single doubt raiser were present. The three main types of doubt raiser were: (i) negativity - for example, pointing out a weakness of the applicant, perhaps to address a lack of prior experience, but inadvertently heightening it as a result, (ii) faint praise - for example, the candidate only requiring minimal supervision, pointing out that requiring no supervision would be better, and (iii) hedging - admitting uncertainty, for example, she might not be a stand-out candidate, but I think she would be very good. Of course, all of the recommendation writers had good intentions, but they could have taken more time to reflect on the language they were using and whether they were holding a female candidate to the same standard or expectation as a male candidate.

In conclusion, everyone would benefit from honest job descriptions. This would encourage organisations to reflect on what the ‘real’ requirements are, especially when it comes to promotions - since women are entering the workplace in record numbers, but this has not yet filtered through proportionately to the top jobs. If the culture of job descriptions does not change, then applicants must remember to ‘read down’ the description themselves. After all, despite all these ideal candidates, the World Economic Forum this year reported that global talent shortages are at a record high of 56%. Looks like it might be time to go for that promotion.

Views expressed are those of the author, Helen Broadbridge, Tax Solicitor

December 2020