Leaning In Won’t Fix the Gender Gap (Yet)

5 minute read

A former colleague described her initial job interview like this: “I had 15 minutes to complete each task and he stood over my shoulder the entire time watching for mistakes.” She had endured what was commonly referred to as the “Tom” interview, named after an executive who, despite his pleasant disposition in the office, was notorious for his hard-core interviewing style.

Then there’s Liz, a highly qualified candidate applying for a position as the creative head for a large marketing company. Liz made it through a long, competitive interview process to the last round, which pitted the final candidates against each other in a timed design task.

Such high-pressure interviews are becoming increasingly common across many industries. They make sense for some jobs—if you are fighter pilot, for instance, the skills to compete and perform under intense pressure are necessary. But in Liz’s case, the time-based design challenge she experienced in her interview was a far cry from how a similar design would be done in the real world, where the creative process takes time and resources. What about the time-based, high-pressure interview our former colleague (a software engineer) experienced? Has she ever completed work under a similar environment while on the job? She laughed when we asked her: “No way; I would hate that kind of job.”

Surviving the “Tom” interview immediately gave a new employee a bit of credibility in the office, but do these types of interviews predict success on the job? And more importantly, do competitive, high-pressure interviews contribute to the gender gap we see in fields such as software engineering (only 20% female)?

Research we conducted with Muriel Niederle and Aldo Rustichini shows that men tend to up their game when facing competitive pressure; women typically don’t. We see this difference in spite of equal performances outside the competitive environment.

In using a high-pressure, competitive interview environment even for jobs that don’t require these skills for success, employers may be inadvertently tipping the scales to favor the more competitive gender—men.

The same is true for more than just job interviews. Consider the 2013 SAT results showing the large gender gap that still persists in math. Boys consistently score higher (32 points on average last year) than girls despite the fact that girls are academically superior in math in several other measures, including GPA. Boys improve their performance in the test environment; girls don’t.

If an employer wanted to hire the person with the best math skills, which candidate should she choose: the one who consistently performs well academically or the one who performs better on the SAT?

In essence, this is the choice employers face when they structure their interview process.

Similarly to many of the brainteaser interviews that are popular with companies as a way to test analytical skills, high-pressure interviews are being touted as a good way to test the ability to work under pressure. The problem? As Google recently admitted, brainteaser interviews are “a complete waste of time … they don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.” We think something similar is going on in many of these high-pressure, competitive interviews—they make the interviewer feel powerful, but don’t actually serve the purpose of identifying good candidates.

At this point, you may be thinking, “But wait, there are plenty of examples of women who thrive in high-pressure environments.” You’re right. And we don’t think girls are born with less competitive drive than boys. In the research we (together with Ken Leonard and John List) conducted in the matrilineal society of Khasi in north east India, where women hold the majority of the power, we found women to be just as competitive as men, indicating the gender differences we see in competitiveness are at least in part due to nurture rather than nature. But changing the culture is hard in the short run, particularly with regard to gender relations.

Since the release of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, there’s been a renewed effort to encourage young women and girls to be more competitive in the workplace, and our research with the matrilineal society suggests this approach may work over time. But changing our society to embrace the competitiveness in young girls takes time. And recent findings showing that parents are still more concerned about their daughters’ looks than their brains may mean we are in for a long, uphill battle.

So although we agree with Sheryl Sandberg’s argument that women should be encouraged to “lean in,” we argue for a faster fix to much of the gender gap in the labor market. We encourage companies to structure their recruiting and interviewing processes to select the best candidates rather than the most competitive ones. Although the “Tom approach” to interviews may select the best fighter pilots, it may not select the best software engineers. Taking away time pressure and other competitive elements from the selection process can simultaneously help companies find the best candidates and reduce the gender gap.

Don’t make the job interview more competitive than the job itself!

Uri Gneezy is the Epstein/Atkinson Endowed Chair in Behavioral Economics and professor of economics and strategy at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego. He is the co-author, with John List, of The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life.

Katie Baca-Motes is a Senior Researcher and Writer at the Rady School of Management, University of California, San Diego.

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