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Have You Seen These Gender Biases During Job Interviews?

Women, trying to be likable, may not paint a full picture of their accomplishments. Men generally exude more confidence.

A group of business people talking at a meeting.

​Women tend to sell themselves short in job interviews. They credit others for their success or downplay their experience. They read the room and worry about appearing arrogant or unlikable if they promote themselves.

Men, on the other hand, often put their confidence on full display. They up their game under competitive pressure and are not concerned about coming off as aggressive, boastful or too ambitious.

These are generalizations, but studies such as one conducted at Montana State University show that culturally entrenched gender biases still haunt the hiring process. Women are afraid that if they toot their own horn, they may be judged as a braggart. Hiring managers and HR should be aware of these tendencies and try to probe deeper with self-effacing job applicants.

Washington, D.C.-based psychologist Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., consults with law firms and coaches female lawyers who are struggling to advance.  She recounts a phone call from the only woman on a hiring committee at a law firm. The woman said one job candidate told the group that she had extensive experience in the focus area, so she was sure she could make a significant contribution.

"She thinks a lot of herself," the men on the committee said later.

"When a man came in and said almost the same thing, they were pleased. They liked his confidence," the woman told Ostrow.

Robin Mamlet, senior partner and managing director of the education practice at executive search firm WittKieffer in Philadelphia, wrote about gender differences in hiring for the Chronicle of Higher Education

When men are asked how they would handle a new responsibility, they respond, "I can do that," she said. But women are more likely to respond, "I have not had that responsibility yet, but …" or "With more exposure in this area, I could …"

Get into Details

The confidence gap is real. A 2019 National Bureau of Economic Research study showed that men rated their performance 33 percent higher than women, although both performed equally well on the same test. Women guessed they answered fewer questions correctly than they did on average, and men thought they had more correct answers than was the case.

"Women may not talk about their work as favorably as men, but that doesn't mean their performance is any worse," the study authors concluded in Harvard Business Review.

Yet the humble person risks being forgettable or seen as less accomplished than people who talk themselves up. Hiring managers can try harder to draw out details if they sense modesty is getting in the way of a candidate's presentation.

"If someone says, '[I have] lots of experience,' ask them to describe it exactly," said Ostrow, who noted that men can have difficulty selling themselves, too.

"Ask for concrete examples," she continued. " 'Give me examples of some of your best work products. Tell me three things you've accomplished that are relevant to this job. When have you gotten positive feedback from supervisors or clients? What have you done in your career that you're proudest of?' "

Another challenge is that women often couch their accomplishments in teamwork, said
Barry Drexler, an interview coach in New York City and former corporate human resources executive. "You can't tell anything about the person when their answer is about 'we.' You have to politely get back to their role. 'How did you contribute?' " Use layers of questions that drill down, he said.

Asking the interviewee "How would people describe you?" may help get to the root of a modest person's accomplishments, he suggested. "Also include a bubbly, friendly interviewer on your team," he added. "Some people are better at pulling information out."

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Overcoming Workplace Bias

Check Your Biases

The confidence gap between men and women can surface as soon as a job is advertised. If a posted position has 10 prerequisites and a man has six of them, he will likely apply. A woman, on the other hand, will generally not apply unless she has all 10 requirements or the wording makes clear that all aren't essential.

Interviewers need to recognize and consider their own gender biases before and after an interview. This could mean, for example, overlooking a woman's weaker handshake, Drexler said.

And nix the double standards. "Ask yourself, 'If I were interviewing a man, would I react differently to that answer?' " Ostrow said.

Mamlet has heard male hiring managers criticize women who use "I" too often. "Are they applying that [judgment] equally to everyone? It's hard to tell who is responsible for [an accomplishment] without saying 'I.' "

Using a diverse panel of people to conduct interviews is critical to avoid bias, Mamlet maintained. If HR or a consultant supervising the hiring committee suspects a strong candidate is being rejected for the wrong reasons, they should step in and review the decision, she added.

Lastly, never make a hiring decision based solely on an interview, Mamlet stressed. "Look at references, resume, cover letter, leadership assessments, search committee comments. Put it all together to get a good hire.

"Acing an interview is only tangentially related to doing a job well," she added. "Sometimes the best people are the least effective in advocating for themselves."

Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.


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