The Great Resignation wasn’t a choice for many women. From historic labor shortages at childcare centers to unpredictable school closures, the pandemic reduced already limited options for working mothers, who are twice as likely as fathers to scale back their career or leave the workforce due to a lack of childcare. More people are becoming aware of the barriers that women face advancing in their careers. But a looming question is: Will firms help or hinder women’s attempts to recover the momentum lost when they were pushed out of the workforce?
Organizational initiatives focused on increasing awareness of gender inequality are popular—if not entirely effective. But research I conducted at the University of California San Diego with Oliver Hahl, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, suggests awareness is an insufficient solution to the problem. We find that despite women’s experiences with discrimination being at the forefront of people’s minds, overqualified women are still hired for the same jobs and ranks as sufficiently qualified men. This means inequality at work isn’t only the fault of blatant sexists who mistreat women. It’s also perpetuated unintentionally by people aware of the problem and motivated to help.
Across several studies, we asked approximately 1,500 people with hiring experience to rate candidates’ fit for an open position and explain their evaluations. This provides both quantitative and qualitative insights. In these studies, we randomly assigned people to evaluate a job candidate who either has the necessary qualifications (the “sufficiently qualified candidate”) or has far more qualifications than is necessary (the “overqualified candidate”). To indicate gender, job candidates have stereotypically masculine or feminine first names. Our experimental method ensures comparisons are made between equivalent overqualified and sufficiently qualified male and female candidates. Results consistently show people are comfortable hiring women, but not men, for jobs they’re overqualified for.
Although overqualified men are labeled flight risks who think they’re “too good for the job” and will “leave as soon as he finds a higher paying position,” people don’t have these concerns about overqualified women. It isn’t that they don’t recognize women’s over-qualification, which was a possibility we considered due to double standards around women’s competence at work.
Instead, it’s easier for people to rationalize overqualified women’s motivations. They don’t think overqualified women are flight risks because of gender stereotypes about women valuing their relationships more. They also assume overqualified women are applying for lower ranking positions to escape unfair barriers to their advancement at their current firm. Women’s possible experiences with discrimination are used to justify hiring them for jobs they’re overqualified for; it’s framed as a way to help women out of a bad situation. Our supplemental experiment supports this: Overqualified women are less likely to be hired when it’s clear they aren’t facing discrimination at their current workplace.
But hiring overqualified women and rejecting overqualified men isn’t doing women any favors. Considering we also find people hire sufficiently qualified men over sufficiently qualified women, this means women need to be overqualified to be hired.
Our research shows women must be overqualified to convince people of their career commitment. Although overqualified women are seen as career driven, sufficiently qualified women are not. People hesitate to hire sufficiently qualified women, arguing, “She’s not here for the job; she recognizes the new company has more flexible arrangements” and therefore, “she can have more family opportunities.”
Our results are consistent with “the motherhood penalty,” a type of labor-market discrimination in which mothers are stereotyped as the primary caregiver, in terms of taking on competing work and family demands,—and assumption which isn’t as readily applied to fathers. It was troubling to see study participants assumed sufficiently qualified women weren’t committed to their careers despite the fact that résumés included no information about whether or not candidates have children.
Women might be more likely than men to apply to jobs they’re overqualified for, but it doesn’t answer how to evaluate them once they’ve applied. Firms should implement a formal procedure for evaluating overqualified candidates, who aren’t typical applicants. Checklist procedures, like those used by surgeons and pilots, standardize decision-making processes and reduce errors as a result. Following a checklist for evaluating overqualified candidates would prompt people to verify their (potentially inaccurate) assumptions about overqualified men and women before rejecting or advancing them in the hiring process. For instance, a checklist can lead people to clarify if candidates know they’re overqualified. If so, do they have compelling reasons for applying anyway? If not, are there other positions in the firm that better match their qualifications?
System-based changes, even simple ones, are more effective at reducing inequality than anti-bias awareness training alone, which has short-lived effects when not linked to actionable strategies for people to change their behavior. Organizational programs focused only on increasing awareness of gender bias are all flash and no substance if not linked to meaningful policy changes.
It’s true this creates more work for people making hiring decisions, and companies should compensate these team members accordingly. It comes down to how serious leaders are about reducing inequality in their workplace. So, companies must review whether their efforts are purely performances or taken in pursuit of giving men and women equal career opportunities?
Elizabeth L. Campbell is an assistant professor of management at the Rady School of Management, UC San Diego. Campbell’s research examines gender inequality in career advancement.