NEW YORK - Diversifying the workplace is an urgent priority for most employers, but the barriers to doing so are steep: studies have shown that in order to achieve gender balance at work, nearly 50 percent of women would need to change occupations. But an ongoing challenge for companies as they work to diversify is ensuring diverse applicants are submitting resumes. Columbia Business School Professors of Management Mabel Abraham and Vanessa Burbano find that leadership gender and organizational values claims lead to gender differences in the companies to which men and women apply: male job seekers tend to apply based on perceived consistency between the gender of leadership and organizational claims, while female candidates additionally prioritize signals that suggest the employer is unbiased and equitable.

The new research builds on prior studies of how men and women choose jobs, finding that even within the same industry, and identical job position, workers self-segregate by company. The researchers shared multiple versions of a job posting for a market analyst on a high-traffic job search platform, adjusting key information about the hiring company such as gender of the organization’s leaders and company claims, which they find affects the gender composition of the applicant pool. Among the 6,321 applications received, 36 percent of men applied to male-led companies making only business claims, whereas only 24 percent of women applied to these same positions. Female-led companies making diversity claims were the most attractive to female job seekers, with 33 percent of women applying.

As outsiders, job seekers are limited to applying to companies and organizations based on observable characteristics – elevating the importance of an employer’s stated claims and the composition of the leadership team.

The findings demonstrate that a solution for improving workplace diversity is placing women in positions of leadership or highlighting social claims and values, which they find attracts a more gender-balanced applicant pool and workforce. Due to their longstanding history of marginalization in the workplace, women have a distinct set of factors they consider when making career decisions – prioritizing issues of bias and equity. Employers scratching their heads at gender homogeneous applicant pools need not look further than their own organizational statements and self-descriptions, as well as the gender composition of their leadership, to understand how their applicant pools become segregated – and how to do better.

The study, Congruence between Leadership Gender and Organizational Claims Affects the Gender Composition of the Applicant Pool: Field Experimental Evidence, is available online here.

Learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School.