Editorial: Reform physical testing at work


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A new study published in this month’s Journal of Applied Psychology, led in part by researchers from the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, suggests that employers could reduce gender biases in their hiring processes by altering physical tests given to prospective employees.

The study found that men tend to perform better in tests of physical strength and endurance, but that there is virtually no gender difference in tests of movement quality, a category that includes tests of balance, coordination, and flexibility.

Given the increasing number of women in physically demanding jobs, it is important that employers work to minimize gender biases in their testing practices.

As it stands, physical testing is one of the leading catalysts of gender-discrimination lawsuits in the United States. One notable case of discriminatory physical testing took place in Iowa.

In January 2000, a sausage-making plant in Fort Madison, Iowa, owned by Dial Corp. implemented a strength test that required participants to carry 35-pound weights back and forth and lift them to heights of 35 and 65 inches for seven minutes. Approximately 95 percent of male job applicants passed the test, but only 40 percent of female applicants passed.

Prior to the exam’s use, 46 percent of the plant’s new hirings were women; after the test was installed, only 15 percent of new hirings were women.

Ultimately, in 2006, a federal court ruled that because the test was more difficult than the actual job in the sausage plant and it screened out a large number of women, the test was illegal on the grounds that it had an unjustifiable disparate effect on men and women.

Current law requires strength tests that disproportionately screen out women be directly job-related and consistent with the work necessity. In other words, physical tests that lead to a disproportionate amount of women being turned away have to accurately simulate the job in which the skill in question is absolutely vital.

The law protects against many of the most egregious cases of discrimination, but this new study suggests that changing current tests could further reduce gender disparities and improve the relevance of the tests to their corresponding jobs.

Specifically, the study found three changes that tend to improve the performance of women relative to men. The first is concerned with the overall makeup of the physical test. When tests of coordination, balance, and flexibility are included alongside tests of physical strength and endurance, women tend to fare better.

Second, as tests of physical strength and endurance become more specific, gender disparities tend to fall. Tests of muscular tension (essentially brute strength) produce higher gender disparities than tests of muscular endurance and muscular power. Additionally, measurements of full-body strength tend to produce higher gender disparities than tests of more specific muscle groups, such as core muscles.

Finally, gender disparities are mitigated by training. In settings where individuals were put through pre-training and post-training physical testing, women showed greater improvement than men, thus shrinking physical disparities.

These findings have many practical applications for employers looking to fill physically demanding positions. Testing that balances measurements of strength and quality of movement, targets specific muscle groups, and includes a pre-testing training regimen could reduce gender disparities in performance and hiring, thereby reducing claims of discrimination. Employers should adopt such testing practices.

In today's issue:

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