Venus and Mars in the interview room

First appeared in ‘Training Zone’ (U.K.)

Could a gung-ho, risk-taking attitude at work be giving men a head start on the career-ladder? A look at how women with a cautious nature may be disadvantaged in the interview process.

I am reluctant to write about one particular issue for trainers: the differences between men and women. I have noticed that in many publications dealing with HR issues one step away from the Politically Correct line and the writer gets savaged (Training ZONE seems less guilty than most I must admit).

However it is this sense of saying the wrong thing that is becoming a real problem in training rooms. It’s not that we (trainers) deliberately try to discriminate – but mistakes happen. I’ve been castigated on a few occasions for not including a woman (or man) when I’ve split training sessions up for group work. There was a time when I was mortified and felt like such a sexist pig for failing to have the right mix. Luckily I’ve become far more comfortable admitting my mistakes.

So, what is this difference? It concerns interviewing and competition in the workplace. Interview training is something I’ve done a fair amount of and it never occurred to me that there could be potential problems for women. (“Why would you – being a man,” I hear.)

“When a senior management role was advertised with a salary of £55,000, there were no women applicants. When the same post was re-advertised with a salary of £35, 000, the advertisers were overwhelmed with applications from women.”

There is always competition in the workplace: If people acknowledge this then it is overt competition and often healthy; If they fail to acknowledge this then it is covert competition and invariably destructive. Individuals will compete to be the most popular, the least popular, the most productive, the least productive etc.

A psychologically interesting example of a potential problem occurred recently when a senior management role was advertised with a salary of £55,000 per annum. There were no women applicants. However, when the same post was re-advertised with a salary of £35,000 per annum the advertisers were overwhelmed with applications from women.

On a more day-to-day level I’ve started thinking about interviewing. There are some differences between men and women. (My disclaimer here – I know this doesn’t apply to everyone and people shouldn’t make assumptions, etc. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing – it’s just a thing.)

Men tend to be more aggressive and in a workplace situation this often shows itself as taking more risks than women. This has been established through a number of recent studies. Women tend to choose high probability, low payoff strategies. Men will often rush to a high-risk solution and take a chance in a ‘do or die’ gesture. The implications of this behaviour in assessments may well imply to (more often than not, predominately male) interviewers that the female lacks confidence or competence.

In a recent study Fisher and Cox argue that this could well be the underlying reason women, on average, take longer to respond to questions. This can often indicate to interviewers a degree of indecisiveness. In fact they may well need to weigh up all the options. This will be compounded by the fact that women are generally less likely to take guesses than men. Under pressure, perhaps at an interview or in an assessment, men would be more inclined to have a stab at an answer. Women would tend to want to consider the situation and assess the risks. In a real work environment one would suppose these virtues of balance and control would be ideal. In the artificial assessment situation however this failure to respond quickly is often taken as an indicator of lack of confidence.

There is a lot more data behind this and numerous other factors. I feel it is, at the least, interesting and at worse, possibly discriminatory. It’s an area we, certainly I, have never considered before when training interviewees, or interviewees. Maybe I should.

* Reference: Fisher, M., and A. Cox, Gender and programming contests: Mitigating exclusionary practices, Informatics in Education (2006)

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