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Study Reveals Employer Bias Against Female Grads With High Grades

With graduation season around the corner, many college students are furiously applying for jobs. And when it comes to snagging an interview, you’d think that graduates with the highest grades would have the best odds. But a new study from Ohio State University suggests that might not be the case—for women.

Researchers have known for years that women in college tend to get better grades than their male peers. But how does that performance translate into the job market?

To answer that question, Ohio State Assistant Professor Natasha Quadlin devised an experiment, the results of which are published in the American Sociological Review.She submitted over 2,100 applications to entry-level jobs around the country using fictional candidates.

The candidates, whose resumes indicated that they were recent college grads, were grouped into one of three majors (English, business, and math). Within each major, they were either given a grade point average that was “low” (2.50 to 2.83 GPA), “moderate” (2.84 to 3.59 GPA), or “high” (3.60 to 3.95). And for each position applied for, Quadlin sent two resumes that were essentially the same, except for the applicant’s gender.

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Natasha Quadlin is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ohio State University. [Natasha Quadlin]

“What I found was that, for men, GPA didn’t really matter that much,” Quadlin said.

So, a guy with a C+ average was almost as likely to get a callback as one who had straight A’s.

“For women, however, there was this really intriguing pattern,” Quadlin said. “If they had A’s or A-minuses as their grade point average, they tended to be called back less.”

A lotless, in fact. The difference in the rate of callbacks between men and women with high grades was nearly 2-to-1. And get this: the difference was even greater for math majors.

“It’s surprising and it’s not,” said Norah Barnes, a junior at Notre Dame College in South Euclid.

Barnes’s GPA is 4.0. And according to the study, the disparity in callbacks between math majors like her and a man with similar grades was 3-to-1.

“That hurts a little bit,” Barnes said. “When I go into a job, I would hope my accomplishments and how hard I work spoke louder on my resume than if I was a female or male.”

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The difference in the rate of callbacks between men and women with high grades was nearly 2-to-1. [Natasha Quadlin / American Sociological Review]

“We think gender inequality is something that we’ve really solved as a society and we’ve moved past it,” said OSU’s Natasha Quadlin, “but there are still subtle ways that biases emerge to penalize women.”

To try to figure out why women were getting way fewer callbacks, Quadlin followed up her resume blitz with a survey. She asked 260 hiring managers to look at the resumes and rate the candidates on qualities like competence and social skills, and indicate how likely they would be to recommend each person for an interview.

The answers to the survey revealed what appeared to be a pattern of unconscious bias against high-achieving women.

For example, the hiring managers were more likely to recommend a male candidate for an interview who they viewed as “competent” or “committed.” But when it came to female applicants, managers were most likely to want to interview candidates they perceived as “likeable.”

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The disparity in callbacks between men and women with A-averages was even greater for math majors, a ratio of about 3-to-1. [Natasha Quadlin / American Sociological Review]

“And that tends to be associated, not with high grades, but with moderate grades,” Quadlin said.

Managers, she concluded, seemed to be relying on gendered stereotypes that penalize women for having good grades. And that was true regardless of the manager’s gender.

“Regardless of whether men or women were making the hiring decisions, they penalized high-achieving women approximately equally,” said Quadlin.

“This paints a pretty bleak picture,” said Andy Challenger, Vice President of Business Development at the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.However, he added, many companies are, at least anecdotally, eager to hire high-achieving women, especially in so-called “STEM” fields like tech and engineering.

“Women graduating with these STEM degrees are coming into a really good market where they’re going to be really highly valued,” Challenger said.

And gender bias?

Evalyn Gates, who’s a physicist and former head of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said it’s important for employers to recognize that it exists, and that everyone is susceptible to it.

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“The burden is not on the young women to change, the burden really is on the rest of us making decisions to change,” said Evalyn Gates, a physicist and former Director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

“You can work your way around some of these biases,” Gates said, “but if you don’t know they’re there, you can’t do something about them.”

Gates said women entering the workforce should also be aware of how other people’s biases can impact them, “but for the most part, I hope they forget about it,” she said, “because they’re going to need every ounce of creativity and energy focused on what they’re doing, and they’re going to need to go all out to succeed.”

“The burden is not on the young women to change,” she said. “The burden really is on the rest of us making decisions to change.”

 

This story comes from the Marketplace Hub at the ideastream newsroom.

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