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Trainer’s Diary: Venus and Mars in the Interview Room


Byron KaliesCould a gung-ho, risk-taking attitude at work be giving men a head start on the career-ladder? Byron Kalies looks 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 (TrainingZONE 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)

2 Responses

  1. a single anecdotal response
    Some years ago I worked with a man called Richard.
    We were selling high value consulting services and we got a meeting with the head of HR at a multinational.
    Part way through the discussion the HR guy hit Richard with the question “Why should I use you over other, better established consultancies?”
    Richard went quiet, looked the guy in the eye for about 15 seconds (it seemed like 15 minutes), then tilted his head slightly and looked at the wall just above the guy’s head for about another 15 seconds with a deep frown on his face (I was dying). Then his expression cleared and he answered in slow, quiet, measured tones.
    We got our first assignment two days later and it kept Richard in gravy for several years.
    Later I asked the client what had made him buy us, his response….Richard was the only consultant he had met who actually looked as though he thought about a response rather than having a ready made answer.
    Makes you think that maybe the “feminine touch” does work

  2. Women rock!
    I’m a woman who has worked in male dominated environments for 30 years.
    During that time there have been some noticeable changes in attitudes. I think women have grown in confidence and the new generation that are coming in to the workplace rightly expect equal treatment.
    I spent a long time working, in various organisations, with men who have been threatened by my assertiveness (and I do mean assertiveness not aggression). I was brought up to believe that my view was equally valid and have never been afraid of putting my view forward.
    We’re now so PC that men get paternity leave and I am often amazed at how they seem to think it’s okay for them to phone the kids during the day and finish early etc. because they have to collect the kids from school whereas women have been berated for this for years – have men really changed or do they just take advantage of inane government intitiatives? (that’s a whole other dissussion!)
    Anyway, I’m now training others and work in an organisation where sex is irrelevant – it’s skills that count and rightly so. I would hazard that maybe it’s more to do with personality traits rather than sex? As a recent convert to Insights evaluation I think it’s a very good tool for identifying traits so maybe that would be of use prior to interviewing so that interviewees are given equal treatment based on their profiles?

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