Having more than one woman in a pool of finalists for a job dramatically increases the odds of a woman being hired.

By L.V. Anderson

Slate, April 28, 2016 —

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

According to conventional wisdom, simply getting a foot in the door is a step toward equality for women and people of color in fields dominated by white men. If hiring managers actually consider and interview women and non-whites, then women and non-whites have a good chance of actually getting ahead on their merits, right?

Maybe not. A series of studies described in a recent Harvard Business Review article indicate that having a single woman or a single person of color in the finalist pool for a job is effectively equivalent to having zero women or people of color.

“If there’s only one woman in your candidate pool, there’s statistically no chance she’ll be hired,” write business professors Stefanie K. Johnson and David R. Hekman and Ph.D. candidate Elsa T. Chan.

Johnson, Hekman, and Chan suspected that since “people have a bias in favor of preserving the status quo,” they’d be more likely to select candidates who conform to the status quo—which, in most business settings, means white men. So they asked undergraduates to evaluate the job applications of three equally qualified candidates and select one. But the researchers manipulated the “status quo” by altering the race and gender makeup of the fake applicants: Some groups of applicants comprised two white men and one woman or black man; the others comprised two women or two black men and only one white man. (The researchers signaled race and gender by changing the names of the fake job applicants, varying between the black-sounding “Dion Smith” and the hilariously white-sounding “Connor Van Wagoner,” among other made-up names.)

When the group of applicants was majority white, the study participants chose a white candidate more often than you’d expect based on chance. But when the group of applicants was majority female or majority black, the participants chose a female or black candidate more often than you’d expect based on chance.

In other words, when the status quo of the candidates was white and male, a white male candidate won out, but when the status quote was non-white-male, a non-white-male candidate won out.

So what, you might be thinking—there’s a reason we don’t allow college undergrads to make hiring decisions. Indeed, it’s unwise to draw too many conclusions from choices made by random college kids evaluating hypothetical scenarios that have no real bearing on their lives. But Johnson, Hekman, and Chan bolstered their lab findings with a study of real-world hiring decisions—and the results were even bleaker.

By looking at the demographics of 598 job candidates who were finalists for academic positions at a university, the researchers found that in groups of finalists with a single non-white-male, the non-white-male had virtually no chance of being hired, regardless of how big the group of finalists was. It was as though hiring managers patted themselves on the back for being progressive enough to consider a candidate who wasn’t a white man, and then went right ahead and hired the white man they’d been planning to hire all along.

This is, needless to say, infuriating. But the silver lining of Johnson, Hekman, and Chan’s research is that putting more than one woman or person of color in your pool of job finalists improves their chances dramatically.

“The odds of hiring a woman were 79.14 times greater if there were at least two women in the finalist pool,” they write. “The odds of hiring a minority were 193.72 times greater if there were at least two minority candidates in the finalist pool.”

When hiring managers stop seeing each woman or person of color as an other or a token and start seeing them as an unremarkable participant in the workforce, they’re less likely to hire white men by default. “If managers can change the status quo of the finalist pool by including two women, then the women have a fighting chance,” the researchers write.

Great! So hiring managers just need to consider more women and people of color, right? Alas, the very idea is threatening to many of the white men who make hiring decisions. “Some might argue that adding a second minority or woman candidate to the finalist pool is a type of affirmative action or reverse discrimination against white men,” Johnson, Hekman, and Chan write, somehow restraining themselves from inserting the word “assholes” in between “some” and “might.”

The authors go on to explain patiently that since women and people of color collectively outnumber white men in the workforce, and since more women than men graduate from college, there’s no reason to assume that a non-white-man being considered for a position is less qualified than a white man, or that women or people of color will somehow be getting an unfair advantage if they’re considered for jobs in greater numbers. Indeed, if this research shows anything, it’s that the only people getting an unfair advantage in most hiring situations are white men.

L.V. Anderson is a Slate associate editor.