Are Stereotypes Preventing Women from Entering Manufacturing?

“Nobody likes a lady engineer,” was a career tip my dad once gave me. Things have changed since then, but women continue to bypass science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) career fields, half a century after the rise of the women’s movement.

New research supports the concern that, even in the 21st century, some people still don’t expect women engineers to perform as well as men. A team headed by Ernesto Reuben of the Columbia Business School has found that stereotypes still get in the way.

“Studies that seek to answer why there are more men than women in STEM fields typically focus on women’s interests and choices,” said Professor Reuben. “This may be important, but our experiments show that another culprit of this

Ernesto Reuben, Assistant Professor in the Management Division at the Columbia Business School

phenomenon is that hiring managers possess an extraordinary level of gender bias when making decisions and filling positions, often times choosing the less qualified male over a superiorly qualified female.”

In this study, managers were asked to “hire” participants to perform a mathematical task. Even when they knew nothing about applicants but their appearance and gender, they were twice as likely to hire a man than a woman. But before we blame the men again, female managers were just as biased.

Dr. Reuben continued: “The end result is not only a less diverse workforce and a male–dominated STEM field, but also a detriment to these companies for hiring the less–skilled person for the job.”

In the experiment, 150 “job candidates” were considered for the mathematical task of correctly summing as many sets of four two–digit numbers as possible over a period of four minutes, which has been shown that women do as well as men. All finished the job and were scored. Then the experiment set up several different scenarios. The candidate might be able to tell the manager their score, or in other instances the hiring manager did not know what their test results were. Close to 200 “hiring managers” had to decide if they would hire a candidate or not. The people in the role of hiring managers were also assessed for stereotyping by means of computer–based testing.

Whether male or female, the manager doing the hiring chose a man twice as often than a woman when they knew nothing other than the candidate’s gender. It didn’t matter whether candidates told them how well they would perform the job. When the managers knew the candidates’ actual test scores, they still chose less qualified men over women who showed better ability.

“If you believe that women aren’t good in math and science, you often resist updating that belief—even when confronted by evidence to the contrary,” Reuben says. “Raising awareness of this problem is a step in the right direction. Hiring managers need to disassociate themselves from general stereotypes and focus on the candidate. Leaving your personal experiences out of the process will likely land you the best candidate. Otherwise, you are hurting your company.”

In real life, women turn out to be great engineers, manufacturing managers, and CEOs, and are often well liked and respected on the job. When they are systematically screened out by unconscious bias, however, they take their talents to finance, academia, and other industries.

Even if you believe you think women are just as good as men in technical jobs, you could be influenced by an unconscious bias. As Professor Reuben says, it would be worth the effort to question our gut instincts when selecting a new hire. Companies are finding great technical talent scarce, so don’t slip and lose a great hire to a competitor.

Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

Ernesto Reuben’s image courtesy of www.ereuben.net.

    July 09, 2014

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

    Get the latest.