Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Building a Gender-Aware Interview Part 1: "Success"

I had dinner with a friend who works at Google recently. Over Mediterranean cuisine, we fell into a topic we have talked about before: Google’s low female engineering population. To be fair, Google’s statistics are similar to many companies. They are also leading the way in fantastic initiatives such as the Anita Borg Scholarship or BOLD Intern Program…but that’s not good enough for me. It may be na├»ve, but I have secretly held out hope that Google would be the single company to truly push the boundaries with an enlightened and inclusive recruiting process.

I have a dream to impact more than 10,000 young women who are considering a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field. My senior year at CU, I spent 10 hours/week completing research on women in the College of Engineering & Applied Sciences. I care about this stuff. A ton. So much, in fact, that it almost feels too personal to publish it to a widespread blog. But the movement continues, and I insist on being part of the propellant. Springing forward…

After learning of my research, I am occasionally asked, “What was your most surprising finding?” Clear winner: men and women use different language to explain their successes and failures. Let me give you an example. In separate settings, both men and women in the college would lament about certain classes: “Oh discrete math? Yeah, I totally failed that class.” The differentiator? When inquiring about their specific mark, while the men had actually received a failing grade in the class, the women had typically received a passing grade. Yet, in their words, they had both “failed.” I listened to this phase repeatedly, even from women who had received A’s and B’s, which is above the college’s 2.9 average GPA! My research team observed this shifted semantic scale for the other side of the spectrum too. Generally speaking, women would say they did “ok” when receiving an “A-“ while males would unblinkingly say they “rocked it.” Unsurprisingly, both sets were happy with A’s.

I am obviously generalizing a bit to make a point, but it is a point I want to make clear to potential interviewers out there. I have heard stories from Qualcomm, Microsoft and Google about interviewers who really liked the look of a female candidate “on paper,” but she did not appear as confident in the interview. I have even taught fabulous women in programming classes, who have confided in me that they are, “not really good at engineering stuff and just work super hard.” Believe me, ladies, I have felt the same way before. But stop. Saying. That. Stuff. In. Interviews. Especially when you are styling a great GPA and being interviewed by top companies. It’s 100% normal to have these thoughts (dig into the Impostor Syndrom, for proof), but save the comments for your friends and mentors who can help you grow.

As is the theme with most posts on this blog, I am not promoting a strict metamorphosis from one side or the other. Let’s step forward by meeting halfway. Women, it is not a crime to question your instincts and employ tactics that seem more egocentric than your typical style; know that it is sometimes a dog-eat-dog world, where you are evaluated against your peers. Interviewers of the world: there is data out there. A little education and sharing among your colleagues can go a long way, as it may bag you one of the great female leaders of the future.

(Please feel free to share this with your friends and coworkers. More tips in the “Building a Gender-Aware Interview” to come!)


  1. This is advice that I badly need to adopt. But it's not easy. The part I have the hardest time with is how much I dislike seeing other people put on their "confident face" and sound totally different than when I'm simply having a normal conversation with them, as well as how much frustrating it is to work with someone who always sounds certain and turns out to be incorrect. I'd rather exceed expectations than promise something I can't deliver, and it frustrates me to see others make those promises and get credit even when they *don't* actually deliver.

    "Women, it is not a crime to question your instincts and employ tactics that seem more egocentric than your typical style; know that it is sometimes a dog-eat-dog world, where you are evaluated against your peers." why I have a lot of reluctance about the business world.

  2. I also certainly did not always follow this advice, and it has likely cost me various opportunities in one way or another. I don't think that being a thoughtful person or a person confident in their technical abilities are mutually exclusive options. It seems like the mentors I respect the most as a healthy combination of both. :)