Women who at interview come across as ambitious, competitive and capable can put themselves at as much of a disadvantage as those who present themselves as competent yet modest in their abilities, new research has suggested. So, especially in the current tough climate, how on earth can women win?
Research by academics from Newark's Rutgers University psychology department has concluded that women can be at a disadvantage to men irrespective of how they try to present themselves during the interview process.
Come as confident and competent, and yet modest, and women candidates will often be less sought after than similarly well-qualified men. Yet come across as unambiguously competitive, capable and ambitious and you risk putting off the hiring panel just as much.
The research, published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, essentially argues that women striving for senior management positions are often damned if they do and damned if they don't.
Men, on the other hand, can get away with displaying a macho, masterful interviewing style and, in fact, such an approach is often preferred to a more consensual, co-operative demeanour.
Men who took the latter approach often ended up being "viewed as less socially skilled than female" applicants with the same demeanour.
This, argued research authors Julie E Phelan, Corinne A Moss-Racusin and Laurie A Rudman, suggested "that atypical men may also risk social backlash" and they received the lowest ratings of all.
The big worry here is that the prevalence of this type of dismissive attitude to women, irrespective of how they present themselves, is that, as recent research has suggested, it could mean firms and managers miss out on hiring exactly the sort of people they need to drive them through the recession and successfully out the other side.
Earlier this month, for example, a poll of business executives by UK consultancy The Aziz Corporation found that nearly nine out of 10 firmly believed a culture that encouraged and rewarded excessive risk had contributed to the financial crisis.
More than eight out of 10 felt this failure had been fuelled by a "macho" culture within many City firms, with more than three quarters adding they felt that gender imbalance in the working environment had had a significant effect.
Most importantly almost half – and a majority of those working in financial services – believed that having more women in senior positions could have prevented some of the excesses seen before the recession.
And in November an analysis of more than 65,000 people by management consultancy Hudson argued that the global recession would make it even harder for women to break into the boardroom.
This was despite the fact that the more altruistic traits exhibited by many women, including being more people-oriented, co-operative and open – and therefore less likely to progress up the management ladder – in fact made them better suited to lead modern-day organisations.
"An applicant's gender can have a profound effect on evaluations because it establishes stereotypic expectations for a candidate's interview style and job suitability," concluded Phelan, Moss-Racusin and Rudman in the latest research.
Recruitment panels tended to emphasise social skills over competency when interviewing female candidates, so putting women in a "double bind" where it became a formidable challenge to make the right impression, they academics said.
The research was based on videotapes of actors who pretended to be interviewing for the position of manager at a computer lab, with some portrayed themselves as confident "go-getters" and others more modestly emphasising their ability to co-operate.
These videos were then shown to 400 volunteers, of both sexes, who believed they were watching actual interviews. Each then rated each candidate in terms of competence, social skills and "hireability".
Female applicants who appeared bossy and confident in their interview were viewed by the volunteers as lacking social skills, while the male applicants who acted the same way scored higher for both their competency and social skills, the research found.
What was needed therefore was for HR departments to devise much more objective and stringent critieria for evaluating interviews and educating hiring managers about the dangers of dismissing candidates on grounds of stereotype, the authors recommended.
Yet the reality may not be quite as clear cut as the research argues, because American recruiters interviewed by the magazine Human Resources Executive have painted a more contradictory picture.
One, Michael Nardella, a partner with Connecticutt-based firm Weston Associates, argued that firms often bend over backwards to accommodate women candidates and will almost always be keenly aware of discrimination and diversity issues.
But, "depending on the type of position being interviewed for, [that] can have a very real influence on how the interview is conducted and how a candidate could be perceived", he added. "How a site construction foreman interviews for a project manager [position] is going to be very different from how an information technology manager interviews for a project manager [position]," he said. "Both areas are male-dominated but the cultures may be very different."
And Helen T. Cooke, managing director of New Jersey recruiter Cooke Consulting, conceded the findings were no great shock.
"It's not at all surprising, but it is troubling," she told the most recent edition of the magazine, arguing that it was important for women to know beforehand what they were up against before the interview process began.
"If we accept that there are stereotypical expectations that people unconsciously hold, based on gender and related standards of acceptable behaviour, as this study shows, then we are forearmed to decide how we choose to show up in a specific situation, in this case, a job interview." Female candidates needed to understand that "authenticity" was the key to shining in interviewers. Candidates needed to "demonstrate agility" by placing emphasis on competence or agreeability during their interview, depending of course on what they feel the organisation is seeking for the position.
HR departments, she agreed, needed "to have this study on their radar and educate those involved in the interviewing process", Cooke added.