The term “gatekeeper” might elicit mental images of a hooded figure in a dark and misty entryway. But in a new study, Yale researchers use the word in another context: those who are biased against hiring women.

Published on Oct. 18 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study analyzed data from seven trials about bias in hiring decisions based on perceptions of the existing workforce. Postdoctoral researcher Andrea Vial and professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management Victoria Brescoll worked together to compile the trials, which were overseen by senior author and Yale psychology professor John Dovidio. Based on the study, the researchers concluded that even if job recruiters do not personally harbor bias against women, the discriminatory attitudes of others within that same workplace can still influence their ultimate hiring decisions.

“We started thinking: Could there be situations in which people making these types of decisions are not necessarily thinking about their own preferences, their own values, their own attitudes or what they believe about what women are capable of — but rather thinking and taking into account the views of other people?” Vial said.

According to their paper, the first study asked 522 participants to select a vice presidential candidate for a company with a male CEO. Researchers presented three options for that candidate: one man and one woman with equal qualifications, and a more obviously unqualified foil character meant to weed out inattentive answers and disguise the relevance of gender in the study.

The team alerted half of the participants that the male CEO tended toward prejudice against women and, as a control, gave no indication of that same bias to the other half of respondents.

While the controlled half of the study resulted in more respondents choosing the female candidate, a majority of those who were alerted of the male CEO’s possible gender bias chose the male candidate over the female one.

Vial said that the project evolved into seven different studies following initial feedback from other researchers and reviewers, with the additional six studies branching from the first with several variations.

An expansive body of research exists on the topic of gender discrimination. According to a 2017 Pew Research survey of 4,914 participants, 42 percent of women say they have experienced bias due to their gender. That same poll reports that 23 percent of women have been treated as incompetent, whereas only 6 percent of male respondents answered affirmatively to the same question.

Vial added that she looks forward to future research on gender discrimination, noting that the “gatekeeper” role is not limited to hiring decisions and can also apply to areas such as marketing. Currently, she plans to focus further research on the responses of people in the workforce, since the original study surveyed a large amount of respondents from universities and online platforms.

“I think the basic processes that we are uncovering really have to do with just channeling the biases of other people when making decisions,” said Vial. “I think that’s a process that applies to a variety of situations and a variety of decisions in contexts that don’t necessarily involve hiring decisions.”

Women held 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO roles in 2018, according to Fortune.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu .