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.



Amy Williams recently earned her Masters in English from Binghamton University and will be starting work on a Masters in Teaching at Ithaca College this summer.