It’s a Man’s World: How “Gender Neutral” Recruitment Approaches Fall Short

Within the field of talent recruitment and management, diversity and inclusivity are being prioritised more than ever. Gender is of particular concern to diversity and inclusivity, especially considering the barriers women face in seeking employment in male-dominated industries, and the large discrepancy between the number of male and female CEOs and directors in ASX companies.

In a bid to address the lack of gender diversity in some industries and workplaces, recruiters are increasingly adopting “gender neutral” recruitment strategies. However, research highlights that such attempts at “gender neutrality” are actually paradoxical, and by completely ignoring an applicant’s gender, recruiters are unintentionally stifling the diversity and inclusivity they seek to promote.

The Subjectivity of Competency Frameworks

“Gender neutral” recruitment strategies have been largely spearheaded by competency frameworks in which recruiters identify the skills the ideal candidate would possess in order to employ the most suitable applicant. Competency frameworks are erroneously considered to be “gender neutral” because recruitment is focused on skills thus, in theory, women are afforded equal or greater opportunity to be employed than men. In reality, the notion that such an approach would lead to more diverse and inclusive recruitment is misguided at best.

Competency frameworks are intrinsically biased. Kirton and Healy (2009)attribute this to the subjective nature of competence as it is derived from comparative judgements based on our interaction with others. As a result of this bias, recruitment competency frameworks are inherently gendered as men are regarded as the prototypical employee.

By attempting to be “gender neutral”, recruiters ignore the obstacles women face well before even applying for a job. Although women may be hired by recruiters using “gender neutral” competency frameworks, it is inaccurate to suggest that diversity and inclusivity are the main goals of such recruitment strategies.

Stereotyping Soft Skills

Other “gender neutral” recruitment approaches have seen an increasing prioritisation of soft skills, which have historically been disregarded in favour of technical skills. With soft skills widely considered to be “feminine”, and in turn perceived to be more accessible to female applicants, this approach is thought to level the playing field for women in the professional sphere. However, soft skills and technical skills are not interchangeable because both sets of skills play a unique and valuable role in an applicant’s chances of being hired. As Grugulis and Vincent (2009) point out, the ability to apply soft skills in the workplace is often contingent on the extent of one’s technical skills and prior experience.

For example, while applicants may demonstrate strong communication skills, they may not be as skilled at de-escalating potential conflict with customers or clients unless they had industry-specific knowledge and skills and/or they had previously been exposed to similar occupational situations. The “feminine” stereotype of soft skills contributes to limiting women’s opportunities to acquire the technical skills and knowledge necessary to not only succeed as applicants, but also to improve their chances of rising through workplace hierarchies. Consequently, by conveying soft skills as independent to technical skills, recruiters actually reinforce the barriers women face as applicants.

No Accountability, No Change

“Gender neutrality” also feeds into the lack of accountability many recruiters and workplaces face for diversity measures. Although willing to publicly endorse diversity measures, recruiters and organisations are often unable or unwilling to reveal any tangible results of such measures and whether they lead to an increased sense of diversity. Evans (2012) describes this phenomenon as an ideological cover through which recruiters are able to bolster their organisation’s image without actually having to follow through.

While many recruiters are allegedly “gender neutral” in their recruitment processes, they present minimal evidence to substantiate such claims. Rather than promoting a sense of inclusivity, the notion of being “gender neutral” instead conveys a sense of ignorance about the systemic disadvantages that hinder diverse candidates from being hired.

Where to From Here?

So, what now? How can we better foster diversity and inclusivity in recruitment if gender neutrality is so ineffective?

Diversity and inclusivity must be conscious priorities for recruiters. Greater transparency and self-accountability on the part of recruiters regarding diversity measures is of the utmost importance. With the unique ability to forge inclusive workplaces, recruiters must recognise and take pride in the pivotal role they play in breaking down barriers for diverse applicants.

By acknowledging the biases in one’s recruitment approach, it becomes possible to address them— and Cognicity’s learning and development courses can help! Cognicity specialises in assisting you to identify bias hotspots in your recruitment processes so you can recruit for a more diverse and inclusive workforce. For more information on Cognicity’s services please click here, or contact us today.

Article written by Cognicity.

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