Gender discrimination in selection procedures, reflections from 30 years ago

by Harald Ackerschott, posted Apr 22, 2018

This presentation was originally published as:
Women in the higher public service: recruitment and career planning / ed. Barbara Wurster, Maastricht, European Institute of Public Administration, 1989 (professional paper), ISBN 10: 9067790451, ISBN 13: 978-9067790451

In the following text, you find my 1989 text, rebuilt by OCR from the published French Version, retranslated by DeepL, edited, formatted and corrected by the author.

Tony Eddison, another male guest speaker at this Steering Committee, felt it improper to give you a paper on the advancement of women in the higher public service, because  ‚I know that many women would do it much better than I can, simply because I have not experienced  discrimination against gender“.

I will present to you today the usefulness of psychological tools in your quest for equal treatment in recruitment and personnel development. In this, I will put the emphasis on the scientific point of view more than on my own personal experiences and feelings, so I will feel less improper.


  • Clarification on the central term of Equal Epportunity
  • Why are women discriminated against?
  • Are women better managers?
  • Personnel Selection Procedures
  • Measurement replaces interpretation


Equal opportunity is the central term in this context. In German, it is expressed by the term „Gleichberechtigung“. I am not sure about all the other European languages, but neither in French, German or English does the term we use mean equality in fact –  they all mean equality by right.

So I read in the publication of your last round Table that in the different countries, „officials responsible for equal opportunities“ (LTK),“Joint Committees on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men” (COM) and similar institutions have been set up. Only in the case of Greece it is the “Committee for Equal Opportunities and Equal Treatment” which is referred to. I think, and this is the hypothesis I followed in writing this speech, that the real purpose of the round table is equality in practice and treatment.


The fact is that recruitment committees (mainly men) and decision-makers in recruitment and promotion (mainly men) choose or select men for so-called „male“ careers most of the time.

The psychological phenomenon underlying this biased selection behaviour is also at the root of most cases of discrimination. It is the heuristic of similarity. This heuristic of similarity means that the human perception of others is influenced by a preference for similarity. The perception of obvious similarities determines decisions about preferences. People generally prefer other people who seem to be similar to them.

The situation of women in business is certainly not unique as a psychological process. Women discriminated against in the business world even correspond to the psychological definition of a minority. This definition does not have a statistical and quantitative dimension, but describes a subgroup that is different from the rest of the group by an obvious characteristic. But this should not lead us to draw false conclusions and take the wrong action plans, such as simply activating power and pressure to balance or counterbalance the discriminatory situation.

Psychology regards this discrimination as a symptom of an underlying unconscious process.


I am ready to confirm that there are obstacles to women’s advancement in an organization’s hierarchy. This has as consequence almost a guarantee, that they are highly qualified, highly skilled, more than most men in comparable positions. They often need to be more competent than men to rise to these positions. Why am I prepared to say that this fact that women have to overcome these barriers might have positive consequences? Because it is a gain for the organisation and for society and the economy as a whole because the fact that there are no such obstacles for most of the less competent men in those same jobs (exception: men who are part of a minority) is a danger.

From my perspective, there is no reason to replace the abuse of male power with female counter-power, because there is no advantage in wanting to promote an incompetent woman rather than an incompetent man.

I see other perspectives. This is an almost historic opportunity that arises here from a situation that seems at first sight to be a simple injustice or a waste of potential. Seeing discrimination against women as a symptom of the selection process that affects not only women, but also all other discriminated groups and even the non-discriminated group of men, gives us the opportunity to seek a solution for a better, more productive and most important, a world that is more just rather that only to try to fix the balance of power.


The selection of external candidates wishing to enter an organization is the critical event to be observed.

What is the main purpose of a selection procedure?

The goal is to make a prognosis on the success of a candidate in a role and/or position within a company or a public sector organisation.

How are selection procedures run?

First of all: a job offer is published.

This triggers a self-selection process with potential candidates.

Next comes an examination of application documents.
The future employer makes a first selection. The criteria used to do this range from interpreting photos to simply checking formal qualifications, interpreting the handwriting of candidates or the form of their curriculum vitae.

Third comes the interview
It is during or after the interview (its duration may vary from half an hour to several hours, with or without a supplementary examination), that it is decided whether to accept or reject a candidate. Criteria and methods range from the impression of physical appearance, haircut, whether the face is freshly shaved, to clothing (white socks are a no-go), to the use of standardized interview structures and role-playing scenarios in which several interviewers make a group decision guided by a system of rules.

The evaluation of written applications and the judgement of candidates in interviews follow rules and processes that are mostly based on a tradition of judgment that is based primarily on impressions and tacit rites or implicit theories of personality.

Criteria of selection also can be:
– the level of education
– biography and status (name, family, etc.)
– physiological stigmata.

Scientific controls of judgements based on written applications and interviews document little or no predictive value.

This means that a man who chooses a woman from a group of candidates runs a greater risk.

First of all, as a man, he knows men better and by choosing a man he stays in familiar territory,

Secondly, he would have to justify a possible subsequent failure more if he chooses a female candidate, because this is the least orthodox decision.

This poses a problem for every decision maker, because in the standard procedure with job offer – written application, letter of recommendation, interview, decision – there is really no way to predict the future success of a candidate with a minimum of certainty which could justify taking a risk.

The opportunity you now have is to reflect fundamentally the specific situation of women in the higher public sector and to influence selection procedures and rituals. A chance would be if this aimed and resulted in generally superior quality of decisions. To choose and employ people who are best suited for a task would be something else than aiming only at a balance of power.
The first step for an equal opportunity recruitment approach would be to clarify the requirements of a given position. These requirements are generally classified into three groups:

– The training/ability dimension describes the potential to learn, to acquire knowledge and skills and to process information at an appropriate level. Prior to the selection procedure, the extent to which a certain job requires these capacities must be quantified.
– Functional fit describes the behavioural patterns of an individual. It is necessary to define the behavioural resources that are necessary for an individual to fulfil a given function and to follow established rules and procedures.
– Operational suitability (environmental integration) describes the level of integration of a person into a social system and relates his or her chances of performing well in collaboration or coordination with other people working in the same system.

These requirements must then be translated into descriptions of the potentialities and capacities of the candidates. And I stress potentialities and capacities in contrast to skills. In fact, most managers are interested in a candidate’s ability to do a specific job. But very rarely are those skills really needed to the extent that is assumed and – more importantly – they are often not sufficient in the long term.

In most cases, there is sufficient time to acquire the necessary skills if the candidate has the ability and potential to learn. Later in development, new potentialities will be needed to learn the skills necessary for more complex tasks.

The important and remarkable effect in our discussions on equal opportunities is that no serious comparative study has ever identified gender differences favouring the male gender in dimensions of potentialities, such as intelligence. In contrast, a number of studies have identified gender differences in some measure of skills and acquired competencies.

This brings us to the next point:


The similarity heuristic I mentioned above is a source that interferes with qualitative judgment in assessing candidates. There are, however, some other arbitrary effects in judgements of persons involved in the recruitment process.

In order to be able to make a judgment which gives a candidate of quality a chance and has predictive value, it is necessary to replace interpretation techniques by measurement methods, methods that measure the dimensions of potential described above.

Any measurement method must meet three main criteria:

Validity, reliability and objectivity.

• Validity defines whether the method measures what it claims to measure,
• Reliability quantifies the accuracy of the method and
• Objectivity requires that the result be independent of the person who measures.

Psychological research shows that the training/ability dimension can very well be evaluated and predicted by standardized measures of intelligence.

Functional fit largely is determined by two measures of behavioural tendencies: flexibility and motivation. If these two basic behavioural components match the functional requirements of the job, the chances that a candidate will perform well are greater than when a candidate has to artificially adapt his or her natural behavioural patterns.

A candidate’s ability to integrate into the work environment, his or her ability to cooperate and his or her chances of good communication with others, colleagues, clients or staff are largely determined by his or her tolerance of social stress. People with similar levels of stress tolerance get along better than people with widely divergent levels of stress tolerance.

Together with the required skills and specific job-related knowledge, these dimensions are the main determinants of success in the workplace. Therefore it is important to describe abilities and potential (general intelligence and behavioural tendencies), not skills.

In our surveys on the construction and control of psychometric tests, which were carried out in a total of almost 70,000 cases in several European countries using our institute’s own measurement methods, we found few significant differences between men and women.

In the USA – and it is important to know that in our institute we follow the rules of the APA (American Psychological Association) for the development and application of our methods – the law stipulates that a measurement method applied in the selection of personnel must be non-discriminatory. As far as I know, this is not the case in Europe.

A scientific tool that helps to make the final decision which candidate to choose can give managers greater freedom of choice and also greater security in their choices. It can also help them to reduce their own risk when they deviate from the „traditional“ practice of hiring mainly men. The use of these tools is spreading more rapidly in the private sector than in public administration, despite the fact that the latter often has to deal with a larger number of candidates.

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