Gender in the Job Interview

By Robin Mamlet

As women move up the leadership ranks in higher education, they find fewer and fewer female peers. That’s been fairly well documented by the American Council on Education and other sources, and is no surprise to those of us in the executive-search industry.

Why that’s the case is a topic fraught with complexity. There is the matter of stepping up and Leaning In to be sure, but there is also sexism — sometimes the overt kind and sometimes the subtle kind that occurs all along the leadership trajectory and affects who is mentored, who is labeled “leadership material,” and who gets the kind of opportunities and assignments that lead most directly to advancement. 

Of the many factors that limit women’s advancement, two are things we ought to be able to resolve: how candidates present themselves in job interviews and how search committees interpret those interviews.

In any given month, I sit in on a few dozen interviews with candidates vying for presidential, provost, or cabinet-level positions in academe. One can’t help but notice some distinct patterns in how interviewees behave. In my experience, women and men seeking executive roles frequently present themselves differently, and the differences typically do not work to the advantage of the female candidates.

Let me make clear from the outset: I am not suggesting that women should act more like men in interviews. There is a range of styles used successfully by candidates of all genders in front of search committees. I have found that if candidates have a strong substantive record — e.g., if it is built on extensive experience, articulated clearly, and cites convincing examples — they can convey that through a variety of leadership styles. Presentation won’t make up for a lack of substance — not for long, anyway.

Likewise, I well understand the danger of making generalizations about gendered behavior. However, I believe the administrative careers of some women are suffering due to a misalignment between their self-presentation and their interviewers’ expectations. That dynamic could be vastly improved with greater awareness on both sides of the hiring table — and with better direction from the managers overseeing the search. 

Read the full article here. This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Permission to reprint has been granted.