This article will explore the topic of gendered communication in the job interview, with a particular emphasis on what this can mean for women. As with most topics about gender equality, acknowledging gender differences can be fraught with the danger of over-generalizing.
While gender norms remain a feature of American society, they are certainly much more flexible than they used to be. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that gender and sex are not the same thing.
Gender: A set of behaviors, attitudes and actions that have been subtly coded as either feminine or masculine in our society.
Sex: A biological category usually understood as a male/female binary in our culture, despite the fact that modern biologists see sex as a more complex spectrum.
Clearly, women routinely exhibit masculine traits, and men exhibit feminine ones. When talking about “trends” in women and men, it is important to understand these are nothing more than noticing patterns of behavior, shaped by social perceptions of gender.
These patterns can and do change, both historically and across contemporary culture. And, there is plenty of variation between individuals which clearly shatters the notion that gendered patterns are fixed to biological sex.
1) What We Know About Gendered Communication
Without getting bogged down in an academic quagmire, the following general tendencies have been well established for decades in sociological scholarship on gender roles:
Women tend to:
- Internalize blame for failure
- Apologize more
- Be humbler about their accomplishments
- Try to take up less space and appear smaller with closed posture and gestures
- Use more qualifiers in language (tentative speech)
- Show more deference to other speakers
- Seek consensus to resolve conflict
Men tend to:
- Externalize blame for failure
- Apologize less
- Project confidence (even when they are incompetent)
- Take up more physical space with more open postures and gestures
- Make more assertive statements (assertive speech)
- Interrupt more
- Establish hierarchy to resolve conflict
Again, these are tendencies, not biological traits. They are not across the board, obviously. They are also not fixed. Both women and men are constantly being shaped by the social worlds we inhabit. We are learning to “do gender” as participants in a society that has certain norms and expectations about how women and men “should” act.
2) Defining Leadership, Competence and Professionalism
It was not that long ago that “leaders” and “professionals” were titles exclusively reserved for men. In fact, the roots of a professional class really didn’t even surface until industrialization. Gender codes of the Victorian era were written into the very definitions of these categories.
Although management theories have come to understand that there are many different models of effective leadership, the legacy of masculine models that focus on dominance, aggressive pursuit of social power, and hierarchy based work organizations, remains the norm in practice at many organizations.
This has proven to be a tough cycle to break. We historically defined “good leader” as masculine, perceive men to be more appropriate as leaders as a result, ending with more men in leadership positions. Then, the fact that more men are in leadership positions tends to feed the idea that men are “natural” leaders, justifying the original biased definitions. This circular social logic continues to result in gender bias that works against women.
3) Three Strategies Career Women Have Used
Following are some strategies that have been used by women in the past:
Avoiding Gender Bias
The fact is, many women have avoided this conundrum by choosing to work in fields dominated by women, where presumably their more feminine qualities will not be as much of a liability. Sadly, the consequence is usually a lower paying job with less opportunity for advancement. Believe it or not, the glass ceiling effect exists in female dominated professions too!
Resisting Gender Bias
Another strategy is to unapologetically be yourself, and wait for the right search committee that can appreciate your talents, without gender bias as a filter. Frankly, folks that choose this path may have a longer job search, but they are likely going to be the happiest working with colleagues that respect them for the work they do.
Using Gender Bias Strategically
Not everyone has the luxury of hoping for that perfect search committee. Securing your best chance at your dream job may mean strategically embodying standards that have themselves been built on the assumption that men are better workers and leaders. Sigh. All the same, sometimes it is the practical choice. Many successful women in powerful positions have chosen this path.
4) Tips for the Job Interview
The rest of this article is designed to get you thinking about some of the ways that many women can unconsciously activate the gender bias of an interview team – and how to circumvent that prejudice from determining your fate.
Both men and women can struggle with projecting confidence, particularly in stressful situations. However, because of gender roles, many women have internalized the idea that coming off as confident is the same as being rude, braggy, or stuck up. In the job interview, this can be a liability.
Even if your personal style is more humble, the expectation at a job interview is that you act in a confident manner. It is okay to project confidence, even if you have internal concerns about areas where you still need to grow. That is true for everyone, and yet, day after day people project confidence to gain social power and respect.
Do you find yourself saying things like:
- “I am not sure this is right, but…”
- “I have an idea that might solve this problem.”
- “I think this may be a data entry issue.”
If so, you are in the habit of using tentative speech. There is nothing inherently wrong with this style of communication. It sets people at ease and can empower those you supervise to voice their perspectives and feel more invested in a project. Tentative speech can also be extremely persuasive. In fact, contrary to popular belief, tentative speech can be part of some extremely effective leadership styles.
However, it is the “popular belief” that gets you every time. The fact is, people tend to perceive tentative speech, especially when women do it, as a sign that the speaker lacks competence and confidence. Using this style of speech in the job interview can undermine your efforts to showcase that you know you are the right person for the job.
Few accomplishments in life are done without factors such as luck, timing, the support of colleagues and the help of subordinates. However, the job interview is a time to reflect on your contributions and successes. It is common for many women to be more generous about the team effect than men, often giving away a lot of the credit in the process.
It is okay to be self-centered in a job interview. It is not deceitful to focus on your contributions to a successful team, and leave out what they did. They are not being interviewed. You are. Now is your chance to shine. It is not the time to give up the spotlight.
It has long been documented that women apologize more than men. Why? Some researchers have identified the problem as different thresholds for what may be offensive to others. In other words, women tend to display more sensitivity to the feelings of those around them, an admirable leadership trait.
However, every time you apologize, you give up social power in the moment. Depending on the listener, you may be communicating that you think you are not worthy. If you happen to compulsively apologize, and this is true for women and men, then you will likely be perceived by those around you as too submissive to successfully lead or too incompetent to be trusted with responsibility.
There is a time and a place for an apology. Sure, if you think you have really done some harm to someone, you may be morally compelled to apologize. However, does that happen in an interview? Not likely. The interview is not a place where apologies will be a strategic advantage in most cases.
Finally, do you find yourself being “ladylike” to the point that you scrunch your body up into the tightest position possible: knees tightly glued together, arms folded into your frame, with your hands clasped tightly in your lap? You are telling everyone around you that you do not want to take up any space. In other words, you are afraid to take any social power with your body.
If your goal is to communicate that you are confident, competent, ready to take on responsibility and exhibit leadership, you will communicate that more effectively by owning your space, spreading out your materials on the table, and opening up your gestures.
5) Practice Communicating Differently
The final section of this article will focus on some exercises that can help you become more aware of your communication style, and give you a chance to try on a different style.
The point here is not to convince you that your personal communication style is inadequate. Rather, it is to give you the tools to be more intentional about which style you use in a given situation. This is about adding to your range, not making you feel bad because you are most comfortable with a more conciliatory style. Once you have the job, you will have the room to define a style that works best for you.
The first step to becoming more aware about your communication is to simply start paying attention to how you handle different social situations with your words and actions.
Keep a journal where you track things such as when you apologize, use tentative speech, or exhibit submissive body language. Once you have a clear picture of your default communication style, you will have a better sense of the areas that might be a liability in a job interview.
Set a Timer
You do not need to set the goal of permanently changing your communication style. Rather, approach this exercise as nothing more than practicing a different way of communicating to add styles of speech and behavior to your toolbox. It is a chance to get comfortable being more assertive, taking more credit, and holding a little more social power.
Set a timer for a few hours during which time you will try to be conscious about your target areas. Make a note of how it feels to be more socially empowered, as well as any feelings of guilt you may have. If you feel bad about being more assertive, then you may want to ask yourself if you have internalized some gender norms that are undermining your career success.
Enlist some trusted friends or family to give you some feedback during your practice sessions. Better yet, schedule some time to do a mock interview while making your communication goals a focus of their feedback. Are you projecting confidence? Are you taking credit for your accomplishments? Are you using tentative language? What does your body language communicate?
Getting instant feedback is a powerful tool that can help you adjust your communication style for the purpose of nailing a job interview.
6) Don’t Forget to Be Yourself
There is no “perfect” communication style. While becoming more intentional about your communication range can help you navigate your career with more success, you cannot find a style that will please everyone all the time. Don’t let adjusting your communication style get in the way of letting your personality shine through.
When women are more assertive, some will perceive them as “bitchy.” When the same women are less assertive, many will perceive them as weak. This is a classic double-bind, and part of the reason women continue to hold less leadership positions across the board. Getting comfortable with letting go of some of the judgements of others is part of the journey towards becoming more empowered. Ultimately, your career success may depend on it!