If you want to find a job after colleague, you should be sure to be likeable. At least if you’re a woman who’s looking for a career in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field.
A new study by Natasha Quadlin at The Ohio State University reveals that for men competence is the key hiring factor, but for women it’s likeability. In fact, a high Grade Point Average (GPA) decreases women’s prospects of getting a job interview. Quadlin submitted 2,106 applications to jobs in various sectors in the United States, with different combinations of GPA, gender, and college majors. Strikingly, women with a moderate GPA were more likely to be called for an interview than women with high GPA, particularly in STEM fields. A survey of the employers reveled that they have different standards for men and women, valuing competence in men, but likeability in women. High-achieving women with STEM majors were considered less likeable.
As a STEMinist who have spent my career promoting girls’ STEM education, the results are disheartening. For decades, in the education sector our strategy to promote women in STEM has been focused on boosting their interest and achievement in these fields, including initiatives that present girls with female role models, mentoring, tutoring, and peer-to-peer support; as well as the inclusion of positive messaging and elimination of stereotypes in textbooks and curricula. But, if women are valued, not for our achievement, but for our likeability, these efforts are unlikely to close the gender gap in STEM fields.
Since Quadlin’s paper was published this year, I’ve been asking myself what the policy implications are. If high GPA and likeability hurt women’s prospects to enter into the STEM labor market, surely the solution can’t be to stop promoting girls’ education achievement in these fields.
No doubt a range of policy responses are needed. The world of classical music can provide inspiration for gender-blind hiring practices. Symphony orchestras were, for centuries, a male profession as gender constructions dictated that women should not play instruments that are loud or heavy. Zubin Mehta, the conductor of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra from 1974 to 1978, is known to have argued “I just don’t think women should be in an orchestra.” As late as the 1970s, the five top orchestras in the United States had less than 10% women. Today, over a third of musicians in these orchestras are women.
The change is striking considering the extremely low turnover in symphony orchestras (4 to 6 new hires per year). How did this happen? Since the mid-1970s, orchestras increasingly introduced screens, and carpets to muffle footsteps from heels, to hide the identity of musicians during auditions. A fascinating study by Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin and Princeton Professor Cecilia Rouse on sex-bias in hiring practices, showed that the use of the screen increases by 50% the chance that a woman will advance for certain audition rounds. They attribute a quarter of the increase in female hires to gender-blind hiring practices.
Similar gender-blind hiring in STEM occupations could take the form of HR departments that eliminate names and assign identification numbers to CVs and other application documents. Although completely gender-blind hiring practices for STEM positions is hard to achieve as most employers want to interview the candidates; the playing field could be leveled at least up to the call-back stage. In addition to making the first phase of the hiring process gender blind, this practice could also reduce racial biases in call back decisions.
The late music critic Alan Rich once said that “there are many reasons these days for not going into music as a career, but being female is not one of them.” Neither should being female constitute a reason for opting out of a STEM career. Let’s hope symphony orchestras can lead the way for STEM companies to take a first step towards gender-neutral hiring practices.