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Get Flexible: How Businesses Can Reduce Gender Gap

Businesses that test applicants for physically demanding jobs based solely on how strong the applicants are aren't finding the best candidates and are opening themselves up to potential lawsuits, new research shows.

A study from the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business suggests that instead of physical fitness tests that focus on sheer strength and endurance, employers would be better served by giving tests that measure flexibility, balance, coordination, and other forms of movement quality.

The research found that those tests are strong predictors of performance in physically demanding jobs with results that show little difference between genders, making employers less susceptible to a gender discrimination lawsuit from female applicants.

According to the study's authors, physical ability tests are highly litigious because most male applicants are physically stronger than women when it comes to muscular strength and endurance, and thus score higher on those tests. This adverse impact against women leads to physical ability tests being the third highest cause of workplace discrimination suits in federal courts.

In the study, researchers reviewed 140 past studies of differences in various physical abilities between men and women. They found that men were, indeed, physically stronger than women, but that there were other more distinct nuances between the genders.

For instance, while the research found tests that measured brute muscle strength or cardiovascular endurance favored men, the gender gap was significantly less in tests that measured quality of body movement. Specifically, for tests measuring flexibility and balance, the difference was essentially zero.

Researchers think results of their study suggest that employers that want to both reduce the gender gap in physically demanding jobs and the decrease their chances of a discrimination lawsuit use fitness tests that emphasize movement quality, especially flexibility.

The study's authors said many jobs could be filled using flexibility tests in addition to strength or endurance tests, giving more women an equal chance at the job and reducing the odds of a lawsuit.

A team comprised of Stephen Courtright, an Iowa doctoral alumnus, current Iowa doctoral students Brian McCormick and Cody Reeves, Iowa professor Michael Mount, and Bennett Postlethwaite of Pepperdine University, authored the study, which was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.


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