There’s a simple way to get more diversity in job-applicant pools

Know anyone else we should talk to?
Know anyone else we should talk to?
Image: Reuters/Chris Aluka Berry
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When companies have trouble getting a diverse pool of job candidates, they’re often advised to reconsider aspects of their hiring process like the language they use in job listings or which universities they try to recruit from. Now a study has identified a less-discussed but highly effective step that organizations can take.

To get more applications from women and people of color, it helps if the head of the search committee (or hiring manager, as the case may be) is a woman or person of color, too.

The study looked at data from 13,750 job applications for 156 faculty positions over three years at a large research university. The results show that when a the search committee was chaired by a woman, 23% more women applied for the job compared to when the committee chair was a man. Even more strikingly, applications from underrepresented minorities (such as Black, Latino, and Native American people) go up by 118% when the chair is from a minority background as well.

So what gives? When women and people of color are in charge of hiring, they make use of their networks to find more diverse applicants, according to the researchers, who hail from the University of Houston, Louisiana State University Shreveport, and the University of Sheffield. That’s noteworthy in part because diversity efforts are often hampered by the fact that people want to hire applicants from backgrounds similar to their own. But in this case, the tendency turns out to be quite useful.

Women helping other women

The researchers concluded that women and people of color make a conscious effort to identify and reach out to diverse applicants not because they’re simply seeking out people with whom they have things in common, but “due to the perceptions of shared structural barriers stemming from a common group-level social identity and an underlying desire to help overcome them.” In other words, they know from personal experience the obstacles that others face, and they want to help right the balance.

Interestingly, the study found some differences in the ways that women and people of color went about increasing the diversity of their applicant pools. Women who led search committees tended to appoint more women to the rest of the committee than male chairs did. This composition, in turn, led to a bigger range of applicants as the women on the committee reached out to their professional networks.

Women “are more likely to know other women in their field and discipline who they can recruit,” explains study co-author Christiane Spitzmueller, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Houston. “We’ve encountered men in this work who could not name a single woman in their discipline, while pretty much all women know other women.”

How search committees led by people of color attracted a wider applicant pool

By contrast, chairs who were people of color didn’t appoint significantly more minorities to the search committee, which the study authors attribute to a dearth of options. (Only 14% of full-time faculty at the university in question are underrepresented minorities.) Instead, they brought in more diverse applicants by posting jobs on sites that are specifically aimed at women and minorities, and by working with their university’s diversity and inclusion office.

Reaching out to one’s professional network and relying on more formal channels are both important recruiting techniques, Spitzmueller says, “and likely most effective when combined.”

One limitation of the study is that it looked at how search committees played out at only one university. But Spitzmueller says the findings can likely be applied across many business contexts. So if your company is struggling with representation, you may want to take into consideration who you put in charge of recruitment.