You’ve likely heard this statistic from Hewlett Packard’s internal study: Men apply for jobs when they believe they meet 60% of the qualifications, while women only apply when they are 100% qualified. Once they apply, however, a recent LinkedIn study found that women are actually 16% more likely to land the job.
So, what gives? Why are competent, qualified women taking their hats out of the ring before they even get a chance to compete?
While it’s easy to pin this glaring discrepancy on the perceived confidence gap between men and women in the workplace, the answer is actually more nuanced than you might suspect.
One HBR study surveyed over one thousand male and female employees, asking why they didn’t apply for a job. Women outnumbered men in the following two categories: 1) Not wanting to put themselves out there when they were likely to fail and 2) Wanting to follow the guidelines about who should apply.
Likely to Be Overlooked
While some people theorize that women are not aware of how the hiring process works: That they don’t ‘play the game’ by applying for jobs they aren’t entirely qualified for, data actually supports the opposite: That women are in fact playing the game…but with eyes wide open in regards to the reality of how the rules of the game differ for them.
Women’s fear of failure is not unfounded in reality. In fact, it is reinforced by very real statistical evidence. LinkedIn found that recruiters are indeed 13% less likely to open a woman’s profile and 3% less inclined to send them a message after seeing their profile. As these numbers demonstrate, women applicants have little encouragement to pursue possibilities that may seem more plausible and attainable for their male counterparts. Therefore, they allegedly save valuable time and energy by being more discerning and casting a more targeted net.
Failure is Not an Option
Especially in gender-incongruent fields, studies show that women are judged more harshly for their mistakes, which raises the stakes for women trying to break into or make progress in male-dominated fields, where stereotype threat runs rampant.
This restrictive messaging starts from a young age. Studies on learning show that boys are typically praised for their efforts, enabling them to cultivate a growth mindset that lends itself to mastery-oriented qualities; driving them to take risks, embrace challenges, and grow from setbacks. On the other hand, girls tend to receive positive reinforcement for their outcomes, shifting the focus to their performance, rather than their progress, often breeding perfectionist tendencies and amplifying judgment of their failures.
This bias is perpetuated and echoed through the hiring process today, as men are hired heavily for their potential—which in some cases even outweighs their practice. On the contrary, women are more often expected to demonstrate experience over potential, perhaps reinforcing doubt in their ability to successfully take on challenges. Experience takes time and trust to build, and with more experience expected of them, women are already working at a disadvantage to get their foot in the door.
Knowing the value that is placed on their experience level, it is only logical that women act (or choose not to act) with more criticism of their qualifications. They are receiving the message that they need to prove themselves, and taking it to heart.
Realistic Confidence Won’t Cut it
Even with a realistic amount of confidence given their circumstances, studies show that men are frequently overconfident in their abilities. In one particular Stanford study, men and women competed in groups of four. Seventy-five percent of men thought they performed the best in their group of four, while only forty-three percent of women thought they ranked highest in their group. The study suggests this finding as a reason for why men have a significantly higher preference for competition (of course you’ll be more motivated to compete when you believe you can win), fueled by the continued exposure of opportunity.
On the contrary, competition isn’t positively reinforced amongst females. It has been proven detrimental to their likeability. Women are typically rewarded for prosocial behavior (behavior that serves the group). Therefore, they must overcome higher risks (of failure, regret, and rejection) in order to engage in competition, raising the price of showing overconfidence.
One can only assume that this societal influence would (even implicitly) discourage women from competing against others they believe may be more fit for the job, perhaps viewing the pursuit as unrealistic and overconfident.
More Than What Meets The Eye
The forecast for employee skill value is changing. There is an emerging trend towards soft (teachable) skills, such as persuasion and transparency, which are less quantifiable than traditional hard skills. These skills run deeper than a concrete checklist of competence—and are more commonly associated with prosocial behavior.
How this shift will change the job search is yet to be determined, but perhaps it will crack the door open for a redefinition of the hiring process as well—encouraging both those hiring and applying to look beyond the paper and see what goes overlooked in today’s application process.
Special thanks to Elior Moskowitz for her research and editorial contribution to this post.