The dangers of not hiring women for potential

by Feb 27, 2020

Hiring women for potential should occur more frequently

Yet another gender gap exists in hiring women for potential rather than experience when compared with men. Why can’t we use the same values for everyone?

It is very common for women to be hired for their competence and expertise rather than their potential. Men, on the other hand are hired for what they can bring to the company. Compared to a female applicant, many men may have fewer of the required skills when they put themselves forward. There is an assumption that they can ”grow into the job”.

This means that a more experienced female candidate is passed over in favour of a male candidate with less experience. It is a classic lose/lose situation. The first loss is that your organisation will miss out on the skills, knowledge and years of experience that the woman has gained in the process. The second is that the woman will probably never have an opportunity that is a perfect match for her.

Research shows that potential isn’t enough

Research from the Centre for the Study of Group Processes, at the University of Kent’s School of Psychology, shows that for women, potential isn’t enough. They are often held to a higher standard. Plus they frequently need to show more evidence of their competence to get hired or promoted than their male counterparts.

Researchers carried out two experiments testing the value people attach to the leadership potential and leadership performance of female and male candidates. They compared them for leadership positions in an organizational hiring simulation. In both experiments, participants valued leadership potential more highly than leadership performance, but only for male candidates. By contrast, “female candidates were preferred when they demonstrated leadership performance over leadership potential. The findings reveal an overlooked potential effect that exclusively benefits men. Meanwhile it hinders women who pursue leadership positions that require leadership potential.” The implications for the representation of women in leadership roles are obvious.

hiring women for potential

Two reinforcing factors

There are two factors that reinforce that approach:

1. Gender differences in self-assessment

Women are more likely to be self-critical. In any self-assessment women rate their performance lower than the evaluation their bosses give them. Men on the other hand tend to inflate their own skills. They attribute success to their own talent and failure to bad luck or extenuating circumstances.

Additional studies show that women self-deselect from job applications when they don’t meet all the requirements of an advertisement. They also have a tendency to put themselves forward less frequently. This is because they under-rate their abilities compared to their male colleagues. Women correlate success with the input of their teams and colleagues, but failure as their own personal short comings

2. Wrong qualities valued

So here we have a perfect storm which results in the reasoning behind Tomas Chamorro Premuzic’s book; Why do so many incompetent men become leaders and how to fix it. He adds another factor into the equation. We routinely fall into the trap of assigning too high a value to certain traits or qualities that have very little to do with the qualities or attributes that are needed to be an effective leader. But these, characteristics of confidence, charisma, dynamism and executive presence are very seductive. This is especially true in an interview situation. They win out over more pedestrian qualities which can be backed up by data. Furthermore, these characteristics are frequently linked to male-coded stereotype behaviour.

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Neutral benchmarks

You need to avoid situations where you are not in a place to the right recruitment decisions. It’s important that your hiring process is set up to accommodate this level of disconnect. Make sure that everyone on your team is aware of the objective criteria for the open role. Crucially, ensure that they then use those criteria as neutral benchmarks to evaluate all job candidates. This sets up bias-interrupters to manage the biases that may be present in your recruitment system. It guarantees that every candidate is held to the same standard and ensures that those involved in the selection process are aligned. In organisations where male characteristics are used as a benchmark for success, it avoids women candidates being frequently overlooked or discounted because they “lack executive presence”.

3 main areas to look at to make an effective hiring decision.

1. Technical skills: Here you look at their CV history, skills and qualifications.

2. Soft skills: To assess emotional intelligence there are many psychometric assessments and personality tests. These provide a predictive and reliable indication of whether a candidate has empathy, integrity, altruism etc.

3. General intelligence: This can include learning ability, curiosity, cognitive-flexibility, problem solving and so on. All of these skills can be identified via various testing systems which are considered to be 85% reliable.

What we want to avoid is only promoting women who exhibit those strong stereotyped masculine coded qualities and extend the reach of the hiring process. When we start promoting women for potential, not just competence, and give them an opportunity to thrive in a learning situation, we may start to see a change in our leadership styles, and by default our corporate cultures.

If you feel that you continually get overlooked, consider our experienced Coaching Programmes for Women.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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