There Are More CEOs Of Large US Companies Who Are Named David Than There Are CEOs Who Are Women

Written by Harvard Business Review

If there’s only one woman in your candidate pool, there’s statistically no chance she’ll be hired.

There are more CEOs of large U.S. companies who are named David (4.5 percent) than there are CEOs who are women (4.1 percent) — and David isn’t even the most common first name among CEOs. (That would be John, at 5.3 percent.)

Despite the ever-growing business case for diversity, roughly 85 percent of board members and executives are white men. This doesn’t mean that companies haven’t tried to change. Many have started investing hundreds of millions of dollars on diversity initiatives each year. But the biggest challenge seems to be figuring out how to overcome unconscious biases that get in the way of these well-intentioned programs. We recently conducted research that suggests a potential solution.

From Harvard Business Review. Story by Stefanie K. Johnson, David R. Hekman and Elsa T. Chan

It’s well known that people have a bias in favor of preserving the status quo; change is uncomfortable. So because 95 percent of CEOs are white men, the status quo bias can lead board members to unconsciously prefer to hire more white men for leadership roles.

We conducted three studies to examine what happens when you change the status quo among finalists for a job position.

The results from two studies were what we had predicted: When there were two minorities or women in the pool of finalists, the status quo changed, resulting in a woman or minority becoming the favored candidate.

We were also able to measure each participant’s unconscious racism and sexism using implicit association tests (IATs) — reaction-time tests that measure unconscious bias. We saw that the status quo effect was particularly strong among participants who had scored high in unconscious racism or sexism on the IAT.

So when hiring a black candidate was perceived to be the status quo (i.e., the pool was two black candidates and one white candidate), individuals scoring average in unconscious racism tended to rate the black candidate 10 percent better than the white candidate.

In a third study we validated these laboratory findings by examining a university’s hiring decisions of white and nonwhite women and men for academic positions. Our sample was 598 job finalists, 174 of whom received job offers over a three-year period. Finalist pools ranged from three to 11 candidates (the average was four).

We wanted to see whether having more than one woman or minority in the finalist pool would increase the likelihood of hiring a woman or minority. We found that when there were two female finalists, women had a significantly higher chance of being hired

Basically, our results suggest that we can use bias in favor of the status quo to actually change the status quo.

Why does being the only woman in a pool of finalists matter? For one thing, it highlights how different she is from the norm. And deviating from the norm can be risky for decision makers, as people tend to ostracize people who are different from the group. For women and minorities, having your differences made salient can also lead to inferences of incompetence.

Managers need to know that working to get one woman or minority considered for a position might be futile, because the odds are likely slim if they are the lone woman or nonwhite candidate. But if managers can change the status quo of the finalist pool by including two women, then the women have a fighting chance.

We have spent a lot of time talking about our diversity problem but have been slow to provide solutions. We believe this “get-two-in-the-pool effect” represents an important first step for overcoming unconscious biases and ushering in the racial and gender balance that we want in organizations.

Read more at Harvard Business Review.

Image: Bigstock

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