Imagine that you are a successful filmmaker in Hollywood. You are planning to make a big budget action thriller filled with explosions, car chases and shootouts. Your next step is to generate a short list of actors to consider for the lead role. What names come to mind?
Most people immediately imagine people like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Tom Cruise, or Ryan Reynolds. In other words, male actors. Indeed, âaction thriller heroesâ are generally associated with stereotypical masculine characteristics. When people imagine candidates for these roles, men more easily fit the bill.
The cinema is not the only industry to suffer from this bias. The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and leadership positions in top organizations are notoriously male dominated, even as those same organizations proclaim their commitment to diversity.
One problem is that, despite an organization’s public promises, cognitive biases permeate all types of decision-making, including recruiting choices. My research and that of my colleagues, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, reviews the informal recruitment process. Specifically, we’re looking at the informal shortlist: the initial list of candidates for a role. This list usually includes candidates who are at the top of the list – your mentor’s new protÃ©gÃ©, that employee who stood out in last month’s meeting, Uncle Joey’s recommendation – and in male-dominated industries, most often they are men. Our research offers a seemingly simple solution to this problem: lengthening the informal shortlist.
In a first round of studies, we asked 858 students and other adults to participate in the Hollywood filmmaker brainstorming exercise described at the beginning of this article. We asked participants to generate a shortlist of three actors they would consider for the lead role. We then asked them to expand their initial list by adding three more names. We found that while the initial lists contained a female-to-male ratio of around 1: 8, the extended lists contained a female-to-male ratio of around 1: 6, a 33 percent increase in female applications ( all reported ratios are rounded). We call this increase longer shortlist effect.
We found similar results in two other studies conducted in the tech industry. Across the studies, we recruited 265 people with training in the field and asked them to imagine they were consulting for a California tech start-up looking for a new CEO. Participants were asked to come up with a list of three potential candidates for the company to consider, then expand the list by adding three more names. We found that while the initial list contained a female-to-male ratio of around 1: 6, the ratio in the extended list was around 1: 4, a 44% increase in female applications.
What explains this? The longer shortlist effect has to do with how your brain remembers information. When you think of “action thriller heroes” you automatically come across the most prototypical or mainstream examples you’ve seen (eg Dwayne Johnson). But the more you consider the question, the more your answers diverge from the prototypical answer. So, in a category where the prototype is male, generating more responses will cause you to think beyond the prototype and lower the likelihood of male responses.
We tested this mechanism in a study of role models for children, an area with male and female prototypes. In two studies, we recruited 672 parents of young children and asked them to create an initial list of three role models for their child, then told them to expand the list with three additional names. As expected, the initial list generated by parents of boys contained mostly male role models (e.g. Tom Hanks), indicating that this is a male category. And another expected outcome was that when these parents extended the shortlist, the number of females increased 46% from the original, a significant increase. Conversely, the initial list generated by parents of girls contained mostly female role models (e.g. Michelle Obama), indicating that role models for girls represent a female gender category. In line with the prototype divergence mechanism, for parents of daughters, the number of women on the extended shortlist decreased by 7% from the original list, a slight decrease, but as expected.
In our final study, we investigated whether a longer shortlist not only leads to more female applicants, but also leads to a higher selection of female applicants. We recruited 2,166 people with experience in the tech industry and asked them to complete the tasks for a start-up looking for a CEO used in our previous experience. In this study, we randomly assigned participants to generate a shortlist of six applicants (the longer list condition) or a shortlist of three applicants (the shorter list condition). Consistent with previous studies, while the shorter list condition produced a female-to-male ratio of around 1: 5, the longer list resulted in a ratio of around 1: 4 – a significant 16% increase in the number. of candidates. . However, when it came to selecting the preferred candidate, the selection of candidates in the longer list condition (17%) was not significantly higher than in the shorter list condition (15%).
While it is disappointing that the consideration of more women did not lead to the selection of more women, this study illustrates the reality that the informal shortlist is just one of the many steps in the career advancement process. Research reveals that different stages require different interventions to promote gender equity. An intervention that increases the chances of being on the shortlist may not increase the chances of being on the top. But one should not expect that one intervention will affect every step of the process. We should view the longer shortlist intervention not as a quick fix, but as a building block that can work alongside other interventions to achieve gender equity goals. These can include explicit incentives to hire more women or campaigns that weaken gender stereotypes associated with a role.
Our results show that extending the informal shortlist can improve gender equity in the recruitment process, especially for predominantly male roles. This strategy is immediately applicable to recruiters but also to anyone able to assign professional opportunities, such as mentoring, training, team assignments or referrals from third parties. There are still limits to keep in mind. For example, our studies were investigative experiments. The next step in future research is to replicate our findings in the field or in organizational contexts. We hope that researchers and practitioners will continue to test the longer shortlist effect as an inexpensive step towards promoting gender equity.