He Said, She Said — Differently

Gender sensitivity training could change the hiring landscape.

Psychologist and Cornell University professor Wendy Williams and her team set out to find whether gender bias played a role in the under-representation of women in academic science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. To their surprise, they found a pronounced 2 to 1 preference for female tenured faculty candidates, a clear break from the previous belief that men were preferred over women for such positions.

As part of the study Williams’ team sends faculty only one candidate — either a man or a woman — with the same qualifications. The result? The female candidate was rated higher.

Although Williams cannot speak for the hiring landscape at large — her study is limited to entry-level professorships — she said gender sensitivity training could be responsible for the female advantage seen in her study.

“The ideals of diversity which are promulgated and taught at modern American universities and, which of course, have been the topic of so much training and so much attention over the past four years, have largely become internalized at this point and time in that population of faculty,” Williams said.       

This means that the people who decide who gets tenure understand that men and women do and say things differently, said Tammy Hughes, president of workplace communications company The Heim Group. She was both shocked and elated to learn the results of Williams’ study.

The problem, even at the hiring level, she said, is that men and women present themselves differently, be it on their résumé or during a face-to-face interview. Hughes’ research has found that men promote themselves in interviews while women wait for someone else to promote them. It is up to the person hiring to interpret the real message behind those differences.   

“A man interviewing for a position will explain everything he has done to be successful. There is a good chance he will say, ‘No problem, I got this thing,’ ” Hughes said. “A woman is more likely to say, ‘I just don’t know if I would be good at these sorts of things.’ She walks out of the door, and the people hiring make a quick decision. Is he the best candidate or did he use better gender rules? It depends if the person sitting behind the desk understands how the genders work differently.”   

She said part of the change seen in the study is partly because of women understanding both gender styles, and the people hiring have become more focused on accomplishments. Williams’ study however didn’t account for in-person interviews. Instead, they asked 873 faculty across the country — in fields of economics, engineering, biology and psychology — to evaluate a short list of three candidates and select their preferred candidate. The job was an assistant professorship on a tenure-track position.

For the study, Williams and her team crafted candidate information packets that counterbalanced accomplishments and candidate characterizations. This helped even the playing field. But in real life, Hughes said, gender differences can be misunderstood even on paper.

“How people talk about their success and failure is very different on paper,” she said. “A man is going to talk about how he succeeded himself, and a woman is going to talk about how she succeeded on a team.”

According to the research, women use a lot of hedges, disclaimers and tags, which translate into written form when they are talking about their own successes. Hughes said researchers don’t see that in male culture, where they are more direct about their accomplishments.

To bridge this gender gap, companies are turning to gender sensitivity training to increase diversity among their staff, beginning with the hiring process. Gender sensitivity training assumes that men and women grow up under a different set of social rules — or a gender culture — and as a result their behavior, verbal communication, nonverbal cues, leadership styles and team interaction are worlds apart.    

“If people do not understand how genders work differently, you will always continue hiring the same people that looks and sounds like the people that are hiring,” Hughes said.   

When looking at male-dominated STEM fields — as observed in Williams’ study — gender sensitivity training can be key in creating diversity. Hughes said women who typically enter STEM careers have an uphill battle from day one because they are entering a field that is ruled by male culture they know little about.

“They will have to figure out those rules in order to succeed,” she said, noting an even bigger problem in women who only succeed by completely adopting a male culture and doing little to change the environment’s diversity. “When you put women into this workplace, and they have to adapt all the time they tend to lose their unique diversity, and they behave like everyone else. It’s the company that loses in the end.”