Closing the Interview Gender Gap

Posted on December 20, 2012 by


I recently had the opportunity to speak at the W-Net Boot Camp in San Diego.  It was a wonderful experience, and although I had “first time speaker” jitters, I enjoyed it immensely.  How could you not enjoy being around a group of smart, successful, and impressive women who have made the commitment to help each other to succeed?

Closing the interview gender gapMy company, the Card Resource Group Incorporated, is a search and recruitment firm specializing in payments.   Although I don’t bill myself as a “diversity recruiter”, I do put a lot of effort into presenting a broad slate of candidates for my clients.  Two of the last four candidates I’ve placed have been women.  However, it can be hard to find qualified female candidates for the senior-level searches I work on.  I’ve spent a lot of time considering why this is, and I think that one of the problems is that most women have been trained since childhood to be modest.  That may have earned the approval of our grandmothers and our Sunday school teachers, but it won’t help us to advance in our careers.  This ingrained habit of modesty is harming us, and allowing less modest candidates to accelerate past us in the race for career success.  My advice to you: “Quit it!”

Don’t be shy about reminding people of your accomplishments.  When was the last time you saw an up-and-coming male executive downplay his skills?  Never!  They don’t do it, and it shows.  That’s one of the reasons why women continue to be underrepresented at the executive table, and underpaid compared with their male counterparts.  Because we are too willing to “be nice” and not willing enough to say “Hey, that’s my accomplishment, give it back!”

It is especially important that you be able to articulate your accomplishments if you are competing against an external candidate for an internal job or promotion.  After all, the external candidate is going to be prepared to spell out his triumphs and successes, and he has the advantage of a clean slate.  He’s never had a bad day, been flustered in a meeting, or missed a deadline.  At least, not where you work.  And you likely have.

Imagine you are the hiring manager who is interviewing candidates for a job.  You’ve just spoken with an external candidate, Dan, who spent days preparing for this interview.  He’s talked to people in the company, done some competitive research, and reviewed and rehearsed his presentation.  He starts the interview by briefly touching on two recent accomplishments that are directly applicable to this job, and you are curious about those accomplishments.  You ask some questions, and before you know it, ten minutes have gone by.  You like what you’ve heard.  During the rest of the interview, Dan often refers to those and other accomplishments, and you wrap up the interview convinced he’s a real go-getter.

The next interview is with Catherine, who has been with the company for seven years.  Catherine hasn’t really spent much time preparing for the interview, because she knows all about the company.  After all, she’s been there through the ups and downs.  You start the interview by asking how her current project is going.  She goes into some details – Joe in finance is looking at her cost estimates, Jill in marketing has made some new recommendations.  Then Catherine tells you why she wants this job.  The budget is being cut in her product line, and there have been several layoffs.  She’s got the experience, and after many years with the company, deserves a chance to continue her good work in your department.   You spend the next few minutes talking about the budget cuts, and then give her a high-level overview of the job.

What did Catherine do wrong?

She didn’t talk about her recent accomplishments, because she knows it was a team effort and it might be unfair to Jill and Joe to claim the success as her own.  She didn’t point out that the project came in on-time and under-budget, because she thinks you know that.  She didn’t recap her career, and remind you of the quick career advancement she’s enjoyed with the company.  And she didn’t articulate how she would tackle this job, because she assumed you’ve already seen her in action.

After the two interviews end, you pause to gather your thoughts.  You’ve always liked Catherine, and you gave her a fair shot at the role.  However, she didn’t get you excited, she didn’t impress you with her appetite for the job, and you are far more excited about Dan and his accomplishments.  Although you feel badly, you decide to recommend that Dan proceed to the next interview.

Catherine made a lot of mistakes in that interview.  She assumed that she didn’t have to sell herself, and she was so concerned about sharing credit with her teammates that she never took ownership of her accomplishments.  She presented herself as modest and nice, those traits that pleased the Sunday school teacher.  But like “nice guys” everywhere, she finished last.

When you are interviewing for a job, you have to prepare for it in an organized and systematic way.  And when you are going for a promotion inside your own company, you have to work even harder.  Don’t assume anyone has seen your work through your eyes, because they haven’t.  You have to present your accomplishments in a polished and tidy package, and get the hiring manager as excited about you as he, or she, is about anyone else.

Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed.  If I fail, no one will say, “She doesn’t have what it takes.”  They will say, “Women don’t have what it takes.”
~Clare Boothe Luce

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