Is Your Gender Stopping You Getting a Job?

Aug 17, 2011 by

Is Your Gender Stopping You Getting a Job?

Have we really moved away from the Dark Ages?

I’m a gal in my late 20’s. Just a few years ago I visited the offices of a leading Nottingham law firm to meet with the head honcho about a job.

Informal a meeting as it was, it was still an interview, and, to my surprise, it began with a quick-fire Q&A session about my age, income, marital status, baby count, and the jobs held down by my siblings and parents.

The middle-aged man in a pin-stripe suit sitting opposite asked if I was happy to answer such questions and I had acquiesced. Why wouldn’t I? I needed a job, and I felt I would look a bit of a twit if I refused. But still…

I didn’t end up on the payroll. And though my brain was trying to convince me the hiring decisions of the top guy at a well-known law firm with its very own employment law department could not possibly be swayed by things like gender or age, his manner and line of questioning inevitably left a niggling feeling of doubt.

Discrimination exists – but not as you know it…

We’re living in 2011, not 1911, and, thankfully, many employers these days adopt a far more enlightened approach to recruitment.

So what kind of gender discrimination could still exist, is widespread, unintentional, and could be stopping you – man or woman – getting a job?

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.

Professor of Linguistics Deborah Tannen has been studying the different ways we speak and how that can influence conversations and human relationships since 1974. She has made some startling discoveries along the way… 

Girls, she says: 

  • Play with a single best friend or in small groups
  • Spend a lot of time talking
  • Use language to negotiate how close they are
  • Downplay ways in which one is better than the other
  • Will not ’own’ their ideas like boys do
  • Will ostracise a girl who draws attention to her superiority
  • Emphasize similarities rather than differences
  • Ask questions when they want / need more information
  • Are more likely to talk in terms of ‘we’ than ‘I’

 And boys:

  • Play in larger groups than girls
  • Tend to emphasize not downplay their status in the group
  • Will often pick out or acknowledge a group leader
  • Negotiate status in the group by displaying abilities and knowledge
  • Are more likely to challenge others and give orders
  • Will take centre stage by telling stories or jokes
  • Are less likely to ask questions

And research has shown that most of us carry the same linguistic styles – tone of voice, pitch, pacing and pausing, word choice, directness, use of figures of speech, stories, questions and apologies – into adulthood and on into the workplace.

So who gets heard and why?

Ladies, do you think you lack confidence if you downplay your certainty and ask as many questions as you need to get the information you want?

No. And it probably helps you strike up a rapport with other women who are happy and accustomed to collaborating on an equal footing for the benefit of a group.

But have you considered that a male interviewer programmed during childhood to hide uncertainty, ask no questions, ‘big up’ their ideas and achievements  and ‘blag’ a way through conversations on subjects they are not 100% certain could reach a different conclusion?

And guys, the linguistic style you acquired during childhood may help you avoid looking weak and indecisive in the eyes of other the males, but think about the universally scornful response of women who find themselves in the company of males who get lost and refuse point-blank to ask for directions…

Could the same sort of behaviour in a workplace mark you out as arrogant and lacking team and problem-solving skills in the eyes of a female interviewer?

According to Professor Tannen, both women and men risk suffering career-wise because of such misunderstandings, the degree to which things get lost in translation dependent on the situation; the culture of the company; the seniority of those present; their gender and their linguistic styles.

Can you overcome (unintentional) discrimination?

A difficult question with no short answer, but x3 things you should bear in mind are:

#1 Simply being aware of the different linguistic styles programmed into men and women will help you communicate more effectively.

#2People are more likely to respond positively to those who adopt linguistic styles similar to their own, so spending time observing and mirroring the way people around you speak is a helpful excercise if you’re on a serious job-hunt.

#3 Though we go on a lot about body language, researchers have concluded that 38% of the impact of your message is governed by the way it sounds and 7% by the actual words used. Since 45% of your communication depends on linguistic style, you can’t really afford to ignore this aspect of your presentation.

Find out more.

You can read all about Professor Tannen’s research in her Harvard Business Review article ‘The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why’ .

What do you think?

Do you feel like your gender – male or female – is holding back your job-hunt?

And if you’re open to sharing your experiences and thoughts, or want to share what you’ve learnt with other job-hunters, why not get in touch or post your thoughts in the comments box below?

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