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“The aura of capability”: Gender bias in selection for a project manager job

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This paper reports on the results of a study that assessed attitudes toward male versus female candidates applying for a project manager position. The authors sampled project professionals in several organisations using a scenario-based assessment to determine their reactions to a male and female candidate applying for a project manager position.

The authors wished to determine the degree to which perceptions of gender roles in technical positions have changed during a time of increasing female entry into traditionally male-dominated disciplines such as project management.

Keywords

  • Gender bias
  • Project manager
  • Recruitment
  • Gender studies
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What does the paper cover?

Gender bias, stereotyping, and unfair or skewed hiring practices have long been experienced by female managers. However, industries that were traditionally viewed as ‘male-dominated’, such as information technology, engineering, operations and construction, have recently seen a rise in the number of women moving into managerial positions.

One discipline that has witnessed significant changes in perspectives on equal gender accessibility and competence is project management, so the authors sought to study the job selection challenge within the context of this industry, focusing on perceived differences in male and female job candidates based on a set of critical personal/managerial characteristics.

Methodology

The authors developed a scenario-based survey questionnaire and a between-subjects research design, sampling 312 project management personnel and testing the subjects’ reactions to two candidates for a project management position, employing identical descriptions and language while only changing the candidate’s name: Susan Johnson or Stan Johnson.

The study used the following scales: likeability, trust, perceived competence and self-interest. The authors also included a dependent variable relating to how willing the respondent would be to hire the candidate.

Research findings

The study offers some intriguing findings as they relate to perceptions of the characteristics that are considered important in the hiring decision for project manager positions. Firstly, female project manager candidates were viewed as less competent (and therefore less likely to be hired) compared to their male counterparts, but only when perceived technical skills were low. Therefore, in a hiring pool where knowledge of a candidate’s technical skills is either unknown or viewed as modest, the findings suggest that women will experience a negative bias.

The good news for female project manager candidates is the lack of demonstrated gender bias across the other predictor variables of trust, likeability, administrative competence and self-interest. There was a lack of broader, systematic gender bias results in this study.

Other noteworthy findings included the more positive perception of the female job candidate at higher levels of perceived technical competence, and when women are able to demonstrate task-specific or task-related expertise, many gender biases tend to dissolve.

Conclusions

The results suggested that all independent variables are significant predictors of the likelihood of a project manager candidate being hired. The authors only found evidence of gender bias in relation to perceived technical competence. In situations where the perceived technical competence of the job candidate was low, the female candidate was less likely to be hired over a male counterpart. However, as a candidate’s perceived technical competence increased, the resulting attributions were significantly more beneficial for the female job seeker, who was more likely to be hired over a male candidate.

Significance of the research

The rapidly growing female managerial class gives rise to some important questions. First, what are some of the important traits looked for in attractive project manager job candidates? Second, how does the candidate’s gender moderate the relationship between these various personality variables and the likelihood that the candidate will be hired?

The encouraging evidence regarding a relative lack of gender bias in project manager selection in this study offers hope, coupled with the finding that professional capability (particularly technical competence) remains the great job equaliser.

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