Should recruitment managers ignore ‘unconscious bias’?

Should recruitment managers ignore unconscious bias?

Prompted by the TV programme “Why Do Men Earn More Than Women” shown on Channel 5, I was led to consider whether our team were being influenced in their selection of candidates by ‘unconscious bias’.

The documentary explored several areas and conducted a test to see whether unconscious bias in the selection of CVs could be a contributing factor as to why women were failing to achieve senior, well-paid roles. I was quite dismissive at first and challenged the ‘name-blind recruitment’ process where all references to names and gender are removed from the CV.

It’s a reasonable assumption that this could remove any bias; but whether we call it bias or not, in the TV programme the male CV’s were chosen 8 out of 10 times (by both male and female recruiters).

De-identifying candidates reduced the likelihood of women being selected

Interestingly in 2017, Australia conducted a significant study overseen by Professor Michael Hiscox [1], a Harvard academic, where they used anonymised recruitment. He said, “We anticipated this would have a positive impact on diversity — making it more likely that female candidates and those from ethnic minorities are selected for the shortlist.” Instead, they found the opposite, that de-identifying candidates reduced the likelihood of women being selected for the shortlist.

So, to ignore or consider?

Do we need to explore this as a company and if we do can we fix it? After all, it is ‘unconscious’ so you cannot ignore it as you do not realise you are doing it. You can be made aware, but the pattern will continue as it is driven and supported by a societal bias i.e. years of programming from young.

I trust our team implicitly not to discriminate consciously and to work within the bounds of our beliefs and values and our Diversity & Inclusion Policy. But this raised the question “could it be happening unconsciously?” Could our background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context have an impact on our decisions and actions without us realising?

Unconscious bias, also known as ‘implicit bias’, was first detected 20 years ago by psychologists who developed the Implicit Association Test [2]. Since then diversity training and consultancy in the USA has become more than a $8-billion-a-year industry.

So, it does beg the question if we have been aware of this for 20 years and organisations have spent billions on training their staff to understand the impact of their unconscious bias why are we still facing the same problems?

Despite 20 years of awareness we are still not seeing the senior roles filled by women in the workplace. Evidently, the issue is far more extensive than unconscious bias. This cannot be a “one pill cures all solution”.

How does Curo Talent perform on diversity?

Curo operates at the high-end of the tech market and 95% of our recruitment effort is focussed on freelance contracts. Our talent community is some of the best in their field of expertise. As part of the initial process, we look for the technical skills and experience. We cannot afford to discriminate against gender, age, race, ethnicity etc. Highly skilled and experienced Technical Consultants are few and far between at the level we need.

The problem is the lack of women at the high-end of the technology spectrum. We need to start earlier in the process; removing unconscious bias in the education system so we get more women coming into technology in the first place.

In the past 12 months, we have advertised 600 roles, but only 6% of the applicants were female. For those women that we place in a contract, the pay gap is 0%. So, one approach to reducing the gap is for women to join the contract market or gig economy where they can enjoy rates that discriminate only on the skills and experience they bring to the table.

What about inside Curo Talent? I realised that unconsciously we had created a richly diverse workplace. As a business we encourage cognitive diversity resulting in an inclusive and collaborative workplace; collaboration is a core competency in our company.

We do not operate a personal commission scheme like most recruitment businesses. Instead, we offer a Team-Based Bonus which encourages a supportive and selfless culture. It is a safe space where the team are invited to share their ideas, raise issues and actively contribute to our strategic plan. Our discussions are energetic, innovative, diverse, and fun.

Curo’s Board consists of three women and one man, and four out of six of the Management team are women. We have recently hired a Technical Architect who is female. Did a female interview her? No, our male CTO.

Our Operations are split between India and the UK and the team’s age range in the company is evenly divided between 22 and 60 years old. Our team are happy and feel empowered.

I do not have the answer to why there is still a gender gap; I have personal views, but I do know one thing. Failing to ignore diversity and inclusion will mean that you risk losing creative and innovative ways of solving business challenges. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review [3], diverse teams will solve problems faster, be more creative and more productive.

In addition, a study carried out by Catalyst, an organisation whose mission is to Accelerate Progress for Women Through Workplace Inclusion, reported that “Companies with higher proportions of women board directors outperform others by 53%” [4].

I accept that a document outlining our Diversity & Inclusion Policy alone may not be enough and I accept that in considering if our team is influenced by unconscious bias, the answer is “they will be”. So the question is really about “how do we make the team aware of this phenomenon with a view to reducing its impact?”

I will be taking inspiration from Google [5] and implementing a training programme internally to bring ‘unconscious bias’ into our consciousness. As Jean Vanier said, “Growth begins when we begin to accept our weaknesses.” [6]


[1] BETA Report: Going blind to see more clearly – unconscious bias in Australian Public Service shortlisting processes.
[2] The Implicit Association Test (IAT) was introduced in 1998 by Anthony Greenwald, Debbie McGhee, and Jordan Schwartz. See Project Implicit
[3] Harvard Business Review: Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse.
[4] Catalyst: Companies With More Women Board Directors Experience Higher Financial Performance
[5] Google: Unbiasing, making the unconscious conscious.
[6] Jean Vanier, CC, GOQ, is a Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian. In 1964 he founded L’Arche, an international federation of communities spread over 37 countries, for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them.

Karen Field, Curo Talent

Author: Karen Field

Karen started her career in IT as a software engineer in real-time systems development. In 1987, she joined QA Training as Principal Consultant/Lecturer specialising in Microsoft Windows API development and Internet Technology, gaining an MBA in the process. As Head of Operations at Charteris Plc part of her remit was the development and management of a first-class business and technical consultant pool. She left Charteris in 2006 to form Curo Talent with Mark Sewell.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view and opinion of Curo Talent.

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