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Breaking bias around Educationism

RoleMapper Team
April 23, 2021

Updated June 2022

One area where we see a considerable level of hidden hiring bias is level of education, or to coin the phrase created by social psychologists, “Educationism”.

Researchers found clear evidence that educated people are implicitly biased against the less educated. To explain this using the language of the ‘bias-academics’, we all form part of different “in-groups” - social groups to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member.

Our unconscious biases cause us to make decisions in favour of individuals in our in-groups to the detriment of others. Educationism can manifest itself unconsciously, and also sometimes overtly within the recruitment process.

We often see managers listing a specific level of education or qualification requirements in their job descriptions, when the reality is that it’s not required.

Understandably, specifying a degree can often be a comfort blanket for managers to ensure a baseline of education and knowledge, and it definitely makes the screening process easier for recruiters: if you don’t have the qualification, you don’t make the short-list.

A degree requirement is not a good indicator of candidate ability. But is a degree qualification really an indicator of a candidate’s ability to perform well in the role? Not according to Google. Prasad Setty, VP People Analytics at Google said that “for years, candidates were screened according to SAT scores and college grade-point averages, metrics favored by its founders”.

But, after extensive analysis into high performance and retention, they found that “numbers and grades alone did not prove to spell success at Google and are no longer used as important hiring criteria”

Further research backs up Google’s conclusion. A recent study into employers who switched to hiring university educated graduates over previously hired high-school grads, found no improvement in the quality of work, performance, productivity or revenue with the upgrade in education level.

We are starting to see more of a shift to skills based hiring, however. Harvard Business Review and Emsi Burning Glass analysed more than 51 million jobs posted between 2017 - 2020, and they found that employers are indeed resetting degree requirements in a wide variety of roles, especially for middle-skill positions. There is still a long way to go, but it's clear there is a growing shift in the need for specific qualifications.

Educationalism screens out potential high-performing candidates

There are undoubtedly roles where qualifications are essential. But there is a strong argument that says a degree should only really be a requirement for a specialised position, like a doctor or lawyer or for specialist subjects where in-depth knowledge is required that can only be gained through study or extensive training.

By specifying requirements for a specific degree, where none is necessary, you are baking bias into the process and blocking prospective high-potential candidates. You just need to look at the stats to understand the impact this might have.

In the US, 34% of the population has a Bachelors degree, less than the UK (27%). So, if you are specifying the requirement for a degree and screening on this in your recruitment process, then you are actively EXCLUDING over 66% of the population. Such as individuals who did not have the opportunity go to university - or who chose not to – but who might have worked their way up the career ladder and be perfect for the role.

“My best software developers do not have a degree in computer science, one has an Arts Degree and the other a Degree in Ceramics” (RoleMapper User)

Imagine if you overlay this with a request for a specific degree like computer science, where only 18% are STEM majors. You've missed out on that talented software engineer who took a circuitous route after studying Arts or Ceramics.

Recently, a RoleMapper user had a ‘bias-flag’ on a job description for a customer support engineer that had a requirement for a Masters in Computer Science. A Masters? To do a support role? Really…?

In the US, only 13% have a masters qualification. If you are asking for a Masters, that’s 87% excluded from your shortlist. It’s often done without thinking, “this is what we’ve always asked for”.

There has been a big push towards apprentice schemes and encouraging people to head straight into work and gain experience from the ground up. Going forward, post-COVID, we may see a decline in university attendance with candidates preferring to head straight into the workplace. So, the concept of Educationism bias in your recruitment process will only have an increased impact on your ability to attract talent.

Break Educationism bias with intelligent job design

In summary, degree and technical qualifications may be appropriate requirements for some roles but for the majority they are not.

If you are posting positions that require a degree where it is not absolutely essential, it may well be costing you the best, most creative and diverse people in the market.

How do you make a shift and eliminate these biases? You need to go back to where you define these requirements in the first place. It’s when we design our jobs and create our job descriptions. By adopting an intelligent inclusive job design approach you can challenge the requirement for a degree or specific qualifications.

Wherever this process may happen in the business – job profiling, job description creation, job advert creation, screening and interviewing – you ensure only the essential criteria required to perform well in the role are promoted, screened and hired.

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