It Wasn’t Your Resume, It Was Your Vagina

The laundry list of interview do’s and don’t’s for women job-seekers is lengthy and often contradictory. Forbes tells women to be personable on the interview–but not too chatty. Cosmo warns against looking “hot,” but features images of gorgeous women sporting leopard-print stilettos and full lips. The “pantsuit vs. skirt” question remains unanswered.

The Internet and print magazines are chock-full of vaguely informative “don’t-wear-too-much-makeup” counsel that implicitly blames missed employment opportunities on women job seekers prone to interview foibles. Given the fact that women are less likely than men to get promoted, to rake in high salaries or, in fields like engineering and mathematics, to even get a foot in the door, the question of whether or not women know how to navigate the hiring process seems, well, secondary.

Are women really missing out on good jobs and high salaries because they’re gabbing too much (or not enough), wearing ghastly pantsuits (or tight skirts), or otherwise screwing up (and thus turning off) interviewers? After reading dozens of research reports, speaking with experts and with friends, I’d have to say, if it’s not already obvious, “Probably not.”

The fact that some hiring managers can be bigoted, unconsciously or not, seems unquestionable, though. These gatekeepers have been known to ask inappropriate or gendered questions during interviews, just as they’ve been known to cling to gender stereotypes like “men are natural leaders” or “women are natural caregivers.” A friend of mine recently stopped sending out resumes, for instance, because she doubts that employers will be able to look past her pregnant belly. “I’d be thrilled with just about any job at this point,” she said, “but right now I’m not even trying for a job because I know no one will hire me.”

The reason for her reluctance: A staffer at an employment agency in southern California told her flat-out that employers aren’t interested in hiring women who have small children at home.

There’s little doubt that women have made significant gains in employment and in education over the last few decades, boosted by Title IX and protected by such legislation as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which made sex discrimination illegal. But a large body of research indicates that gender discrimination is still rampant in the workplace–even though experts tend to agree that sex discrimination is actually bad for business–and that toxic gender stereotypes could be a culprit in the persistent wage gap.

For one thing, men tend to fare better than women on job interviews, particularly in male-dominated fields, where hiring managers tend to value stereotypically “masculine” qualities such as intellectual rigor and mathematical ability. The interviewers may have trouble recognizing talent among women applicants, whom they may assume are naturally less savvy. As Jessica Good, a Rutgers University social psychology doctoral student who studies perceptions of women who are the targets of sexism, explained to me in an e-mail:

The traits that society typically ascribes to men are also the traits that society typically ascribes to a good employee. So, men are already assumed to possess a certain level of competence and agency, whereas women must actively demonstrate their competence in an interview setting.

Women may be penalized for being too “feminine,” but they can also face negative repercussions for appearing too “masculine,” says Good:

Rutgers University psychology professor Laurie Rudman and her colleagues have shown that when a woman does demonstrate her competence and confidence, she risks ‘backlash’ from potential employers; that is, employers may see her as competent but they don’t like her, and thus are less likely to hire her. A celebrity example of backlash might be Hillary Clinton: In the 2008 election, Clinton demonstrated her competence and ability to lead, but in the process lost points with voters and critics for being ‘too mannish.’

It’s impossible to say how many employers cling to stubborn gender stereotypes, just as it’s impossible to say how many have succeeded in training away biases. It seems more than likely, however that a good hand-full of women will come up against sexist hiring managers at some point in their careers, particularly if employers are more likely to risk discrimination lawsuits for illegal interviewing/hiring tactics than for firing–as researchers like Berkeley sociology professor Trond Petersen suggest:

Hiring is … where discriminatory behaviors may have the larger latitude, with much scope for prejudice and stereotype, since little information is available at the time of hire.

Many analysts agree on this. Richard Epstein claims, ‘Most firms prefer to run the risk of litigation with initial hires, instead of with promotion and dismissal.’

So where does this information leave women interviewees like my friend who has a family, or like me who will be graduating with an M.A. next year, or like thousands of other women who will likely come up against a sexist hiring manager or two? Is there anything that we–the unemployed, the under-employed, the promotion-seekers–can do about discriminatory hiring practices?

This is a difficult question to answer simply because it is unclear how gender discrimination emerges in hiring practices; most sexist behaviors go under the radar. That is, most interviewees never find out why they didn’t get the job and thus rarely pursue sex discrimination litigation. Even if a job-seeker suspects that an employer is sexist, she or he will have little luck in finding a lawyer or in winning a case.

As Allegra Fishel, an Outten & Golden lawyer who specializes in employment discrimination, explained to me in a phone interview:

I think that people need to be mindful that they have rights on paper but that it is very difficult to prove discrimination cases because you have to prove intent. That’s the hard thing about applicant cases. An employer could decide to not hire an applicant for 1,000 other reasons besides gender. As a job-seeker, you’re not in a great situation to prove anything.

Even if an employer asks an illegal question like “Are you married” or “Do you have kids?” interviewees will have a hard time proving that an employer used the answers to those questions against them. Fishel explains,

An applicant would have to prove that they were asked a question during an interview which sought an answer that was being used for an unlawful purpose.  For instance, if an interviewer asks whether a woman has children, you have to consider whether the question is being asked casually as a point of connection, i.e. the interviewer has children too, or whether that information is being used as a basis not to hire the applicant, i.e. she is stereotyped as a mother who won’t be as committed an employee as a childless woman.  That can involve a lot of speculation.

From where she sits, Fishel doesn’t see gender discrimination in hiring as a burning issue; most of her clients are women who are already employed. “I think today a lot of women are hired into the workplace. I think they just hit a glass ceiling and don’t go as far as they should,” she says.

But then, it is still unclear what obstacles women face getting their feet in the door. Or at least in the right doors.

Ms. Blog readers: Do you have any thoughts?

Photo from Flickr user bpsusf under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. I think we shouldn't underestimate the importance of personal relationship when it comes to moving up in a job, either. And when you're a woman (maybe even the only woman, as I have been at a couple of jobs) — especially a young women — it's incredibly difficult to develop personal relationships with your men superiors. Both sides may worry about how such relationships would look and/or a lot of women aren't comfortable bonding with their men coworkers on the level at which they bond with one another. So, while your boss might regard you as incredibly capable, confident and bright, your inability to cultivate a personal relationship can often work against you when it's time to promote someone. Who would your boss rather work with? A woman, or a buddy?

  2. Discrimination based on stereotypes is alive and well. I found a story recently on Reuters about how being attractive influences hiring decisions, titled Attractive women overlooked for certain jobs: study. It says, "Good looks can kill a woman's chances of snaring jobs considered "masculine," according to a study by the University of Colorado Denver Business School."

  3. Elizabeth Gamsky says:

    So what advice are men given? Are they told to open their collars, whiten their smiles or wear toupees?

    However, for all the discrimination women STILL have to deal with, there is affirmative action now and it IS having an impact.

    But, is affirmative action a different kind of discrimination? Should I take a job because my main qualities are "ethnic female?" Hire me for my brain not my heritage.

    The motherhood issue is another story since "family-friendly" the US is not. I'm tired of hearing how "motherhood is the most important job in the world" but we still can't find adequate hours, childcare or healthcare to meet our families' needs. And, if we want to work, we're seen as less than motherly. If we want to stay home we're seen as mindless breeders.

    When will women be valued? When will we get what we really need? Not equality, but concrete policies that promote women in all areas of our lives.

    • Jay4Harmonism says:

      It’s the same in the UK. Motherhood is not valued, not recognised as worthy, not rewarded with prestigue.

      The caring role is not valued because the masculine traits dominate our culture. Possess and own. Contol and direct. Aquire and gain. These are masuculine traits and they are prized in our culture. Our civilisation is built on these forces of dominance.

      You ask when will women be valued. I think the answer is that women will be valued when modern mankind recignises the feminine values. When mankind matures and evolves a more harmonious culture we will see recognises and rewards the femenine. Share and give. Guide and advise. Collaborate and generate. And then we will find women are valued for what we are and what we do.

      I want to see women being valued for being women, not for being copy-cat men. And I want women valued in harmony with men. Both sets of qualities are vital to humankind’s future.

  4. My husband works in piece work where workers get paid by how much work they do. Being a manager he sees the numbers and tells me that almost always without fail males produce more.

    He explains it that this is just normal. Males compete and produce.

    Status, territory, resources he said. He says that unlike women, males don’t have value to the opposite sex for the simple fact that they exist.

    True or not he believes males work harder, longer and produce more.

  5. bhikshuni lozang says:

    "Given the fact that women are less likely than men to get promoted, to rake in high salaries or, in fields like engineering and mathematics, to even get a foot in the door, the question of whether or not women know how to navigate the hiring process seems, well, secondary."

    This statement is self-contradictory. How can a woman "get a foot in the door" if she doesn't know how to get hired?

    • Amy Williams says:

      I am separating the problem of the glass ceiling, which has been the focus of a lot of feminist discourse, from the problem of gender based discrimination in the hiring process. It would be reductive to say that women have had trouble getting a foot in the door in fields like engineering and mathematics because they don’t know how to get hired — women in these fields are less likely than men to even make it to the job interview. (In other words, I’m not simply talking about hiring discrimination but am also referring to the lack of women’s participation in these fields when I say that they’re less likely to get a foot in the door). Only 20 percent of engineering students are women, for instance. Their participation declines further when they look for jobs or pursue graduate degrees (women are less likely than men to apply for faculty positions in science and technology for instance even though they get hired more often than men when they do apply, according to a recent AAUW report).

      • "Only 20 percent of engineering students are women, for instance. Their participation declines further when they look for jobs or pursue graduate degrees (women are less likely than men to apply for faculty positions in science and technology for instance even though they get hired more often than men when they do apply, according to a recent AAUW report.)"

        And whose fault is that? Students can apply for whatever major they want. If women do not go into math or science majors in numbers strictly mirroring their percentage of the population, it's not discrimination or misogyny; they have simply exercised their freedom of choice to follow their own interests. Are you suggesting that a given woman''s interests must be EXACTLY like that of a given man? As for employment in those fields, hiring managers cannot be expected to give jobs to people who have not applied.

        Maybe (gasp!) Lawrence Summers was right, and there could be some innate differences between men and women. That's not necessarily a bad thing, you know…

    • I would argue that adults expect boys to grow up and enter these fields and in our behavior, we encourage it with boys more than girls. Girls do not always get equal treatment from day one. In addition, the statistics tell the story. The managers are more often male, the CTOs and CIOs are more often male, the team a potential female hire may work with is more often male. Before the interview begins, the odds are against a woman being hired in these fields. Does it happen? Yes, but we can not gather statistics on the frequency of men being hired over women with equal qualifications, can we? It just felt like a better match for the team. If a woman is underqualified, why is she? Was it because she hasn't been offered the same opportunities as her male peers?

  6. Charlotte says:

    Just a thought: I feel like the title will alienate a lot of trans women.

  7. Good point, Catherine. Years ago, before I had my 4 kids, I was promoted in a sales company up to headquarters accounts because the word came from the owner that we needed a "gal" in the boardroom…we were looking "bad" when some of our clients were women, and in would walk the 14 white men in that department. But once I was there, they expected me to act as a secretary at first…then they laughed at me when I used their (inherently sexual) lingo for how to "go after" clients. A VP once told me that I wasn't getting the proper respect from the customer service "gals" because I used the same bathroom that they did…I offered to try to use a urinal if he thought that would help. He got mad and said I misunderstood him. I finally asked a few of the men individually, which they were more uncomfortable with: a white women, with whom they shared their color, or a black man, with whom they shared their gender. They told me I asked stupid questions. When I gave my notice, they promoted 2 white men to split my desk and gave them both my salary…but they had been unable to find any money to give me a raise! Sheesh! I was too naive to sue, even though I should have!

  8. Newsweek recently had a very good article on what motivates an employer to hire someone.The link is
    Interesting and disappointing read.

  9. Employees, especially women, need to have resumes from employers including references from previous employees. We need to know their history to protect us from the many unscrupulous men who use us for all the wrong things with complete impunity. We need to know all this before we even take an interview.

  10. So ask around! Who doesn't do any research about a company before she applies? The working world isn't run by your mother.

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