It’s not me, it’s you

Helen Fraser says women still face unconscious bias during job interviews and shouldn’t blame themselves if they are unsuccessful

I’ve always held the view that women shouldn’t have to compromise their authenticity to progress their careers. Job interviews can be a daunting enough prospect without the added concern that an interviewer’s unconscious biases can play a part in the outcome; if women don’t get the jobs they apply for, it could well be a case of “it’s not me, it’s you”.

Research from Rutgers University in the USA, published last year, discovered that much of the unfair bias against women comes from male interviewers who claim to be proponents of equality. When asked whether they support the advancement of women, their answer would undoubtedly be yes, but their body language and verbal communication during the interview conveys the opposite message.

According to the author of the research, Professor Ioana Latu, biased interviewers can trigger a “serial effect”, where the more negative the unconscious bias from the male interviewer, the harsher the self-criticism from the female candidate. This can have a knock-on negative effect on women’s performance during job interviews, leading to a disappointing outcome for the individual and missed opportunities for wider society.

Professor Latu also points out that we all have biases and just being aware of them means they are less likely to influence outcomes. Women’s own implicit biases about their gender can also affect their interview performance – if they don’t think they are as capable as men, it could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy when they are applying for a particular role or promotion.

These stereotypes run deep. A separate study from Michigan State University published in 2014 suggests that women who play up ‘masculine’ traits do better in job interviews in male-dominated fields. In that study, women who used words like “assertive” and “independent”, which tend to be deemed as masculine, were more likely to be positively evaluated than those with “female traits” such as “warmth, supportiveness and nurturing”.

It seems that the real problem isn’t how women describe themselves, but rather, why they tend to associate strength and independence with men, and why being nurturing, which literally means to ‘help or encourage the development of’, is viewed as a weak trait.

Many women working their way up in major global companies still suffer setbacks and challenges because of their gender. Equipping young women with relevant leadership skills – including teamwork, communication, negotiation, problem solving and financial management – will benefit them enormously when they embark on their chosen careers.

Our CareerStart programme equips girls with the practical skills they need to succeed including presentation and interview skills and managing online profiles. In the ‘Relationship Building and Networking’ session, students take part in practical exercises to create a positive first impression and learn how to ‘work a room’ with confidence. The workshop also looks at how students can build relationships following on from initial contact.

We still have a long way to go before women achieve parity in the workplace but being aware of implicit stereotypes can go some way to combating them. Providing strong examples of problem-solving and leadership skills is an excellent way to quash stereotypes of female passivity as is demonstrating self-confidence throughout the interview. It may be easier said than done but the outcomes, for individuals and wider society, shouldn’t be underestimated.

Helen Fraser is Chief Executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust W: 

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