The ‘broken rung’ on the ladder: why are so many HR decision makers biased against women?

Thea Watson reacts to ‘dark ages’ research and suggests ways to ensure genuine equality of opportunity

Thea Watson

A recent poll has shocked professionals as it reveals that many HR decision makers think men are better placed in senior management roles than women. It’s hard to grasp that, in this day and age, one in seven HR execs hold such beliefs. Especially in an era where FTSE 350 companies are urged to meet diversity targets such as making sure all boards are 40 per cent female.

Thankfully, companies are three years ahead of this 2025 deadline, but this new report sheds light on some of the prejudiced beliefs that still reinforce the glass ceiling effect for women. It’s clear that employers are still not doing enough to shake down sexist beliefs that can get in the way of opportunities for women in the workplace.

Shockingly, nearly one in five of them admitted their reluctance to hire women was based on their belief they might go on to start families, as 34 per cent of HR decision makers agree sexist behaviour still exists in their organisation. 

On top of that, the findings reveal that nearly half of the young women who were surveyed were concerned about the lack of opportunities to progress at work. Additionally, 50 per cent have faced discrimination this year, up from 42 per cent in 2022.

You would be forgiven for thinking this poll had been conducted in the dark ages but, unfortunately, the results reflect the sad reality for many working women in today’s workplace.

So, what can employers do to tackle the problem head on? Stronger reporting processes and creating a fair culture can encourage people to challenge discriminatory behaviour without fear of retribution. Alongside this, employers should promote proper diversity, equity and inclusion training to staff, including training on more complex issues like conscious and unconscious bias.

Another critical way to reduce discrimination and inequality at work is to thoroughly examine your hiring strategy and processes. Of course, businesses will want to attract not only the top talent to join their teams but also the individuals who are a good fit for their organisation. However, employers need to be careful with what they consider to be a good fit given that a claim for discrimination can be brought by job applicants as well as by employees.

To ensure bias is removed, many organisations utilise the practice of blind hiring. This is where certain information – such as job candidates’ ethnicity, educational background, gender and age – is removed from an application to eliminate any unconscious bias, so that decisions are made based on individuals’ skills alone.

If specific qualifications are a requirement, how hiring managers ascertain whether a job applicant has the necessary credentials will need to be factored in. Although such information would be removed at the initial stages, it is likely that companies will still want to have an interview with the job applicant face to face, either in person or via a video call. At this point, their gender and age are likely to be apparent. There could still, therefore, be room for bias before a final decision is made.

Whether or not a company uses blind hiring, they should still review their recruitment processes and provide training to their managers to ensure they are recruiting in a fair and non-discriminatory manner.

Understanding why these preconceived notions exist is also taking a step towards eradicating them. When describing what the career ladder can look like for women, the Young Women’s Trust label it a ‘broken rung’ that stops them from progressing as fast as their male peers. 

Even though we now have more women than ever holding political power, there still appears to be a deep-rooted culture of mistrust of female leaders. It’s extremely difficult to find just one reason for this and most believe sexism is a deep-seated part of our society, which is why it is so hard to reverse.

If you look too closely, you may even realise the nine-to-five has been designed to suit the needs of men over women for decades, even biologically, and especially when it comes to parenting and childcare. 

It has also been traditionally circulated that women are less likely to negotiate pay rises and salary. However, new research finds that, in the last couple of years, women have been more likely to negotiate and ask for compensation but are still being paid significantly less than their male counterparts. This means the counter argument that women ‘don’t ask and don’t get’ can no longer be applied as effectively. Advertising all jobs with salary details and setting clear and transparent pay bands and promotion plans is a great way to ensure women have just as much chance of reaching senior roles as men and will keep your processes fair and all candidates on equal footing. 

Another important realisation for employers is that greater attention to detail when it comes to diversity has positive benefits for your organisation. They include workplace culture, retention and performance, as well as diversity of thought, new ideas, fresh perspectives and creativity. Embracing diversity and banishing discrimination has benefits for us all that cannot be underestimated. 

Thea Watson is chief growth officer at BrightHR