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Opinion The psychology of appearance – is there a gender bias at play in job interviews?

Women who seem ‘too feminine’ may face an uphill struggle when applying for managerial jobs…

MOST JOBS THAT are filled use interviews as one of the decision-making aids to choosing which candidate should be selected for the job, particularly when external candidates are involved.

However, even with very carefully constructed, structured interviews initial impressions can easily bias interviewers’ evaluations of external candidates and this limit the values of such interviews. In addition, research has shown that the hiring decision is often made as early as the fourth minute in a 30 minute interview and that interviewers spend the reminder of the time looking for evidence to confirm their initial, possibly biased, impression.

This is a real problem for women when it comes to managerial level positions in organisations because there is now a large body of research which highlights the problems women face when it comes to interviews for such positions. As well as this problem faced by women, those who do manage to get a managerial position are viewed and judged on a very different basis to men in similar positions when they take up the job.

Personal presentation is a minefield  

Irrelevant aspects of how women present themselves at interview can play a major role in the candidate selection decision. Take the perfume a woman uses – hard to believe that such an irrelevant factor could be important but it is. In a series of novel experiments the evidence showed that gender-stereotyped perfumes are important for hiring decisions – female candidates using a typically ‘masculine’ perfume were consistently selected with a higher degree of certainty than those using a typically ‘feminine’ perfume. In addition to the visual aspects of physical appearance, consistent with the ubiquitous phenomenon of ‘think manager – think male’, olfactory information can trigger gender stereotypes of women.

Another research project looked at how employment decisions regarding female candidates in management might be influenced by gender-related aspects of a woman’s grooming style. Evaluations from a sample of recruitment consultants were used to determine the influence of cosmetics, hairstyle and eyeglasses on impressions and evaluations of female managerial job applicants.

Eight variations of cosmetics, hairstyle and eyeglasses were used in the experimental treatments. In responding to all of these differently presented views of the same person, recruiters gave higher scores when they viewed the job applicant with a balance of grooming elements that were considered to be ‘masculine’ (hair up, eyeglasses and no cosmetics) rather than ‘feminine’ (hair down, no eyeglasses and cosmetics). A female job applicant with a very ‘feminine’ appearance is less likely to be considered for a managerial role compared with a moderately ‘feminine-seeming’ applicant.

Turning to clothes, whereas the male executive’s attire is governed by formal or informal dress codes, female candidates for management positions face special difficulties in determining prospective employers’ dress expectations – appropriate business dress for female executives is not as well-defined. However, research has shown that the perceived ‘masculinity’ of the female applicant’s attire, too, can have a significant effect on interviewers’ selection decisions. There is a positive relationship between ‘masculinity’ of the applicant’s clothing and the favourability of hiring recommendations received by female applicants for managerial positions.

Physical attractiveness 

Yet another irrelevant aspect of a female candidate’s suitability that can enter into consideration for a managerial position is the ‘beauty is beast’ phenomenon whereby attractiveness can be detrimental to women in certain employment contexts. This effect can occur when women apply for managerial positions which are normatively sex-typed and deemed to be stereotypically ‘masculine’. Physical attractiveness and gender trigger stereotype inferences such that attractive women are often perceived to lack the traits necessary to succeed in a ‘masculine’ job. If physical appearance is unimportant to the job – such jobs included in the research were Director of Finance, Marketing Manager and Manager of R&D – research has shown that an attractive woman will be perceived to fit less well with the job than if physical appearance were important to the job..

When a woman manages to surmount these entry level interview obstacles and biases arising from stereotyping at the selection stage she still faces yet more problems if she is fortunate enough to actually get to do the managerial job. Even if a woman demonstrates that she has the requisite skills and experience needed for what is wrongly perceived to be a ‘masculine’ job, she has another biases to deal with. If successful in the job she can be seen to violate her stereotyped gender role and is, therefore, seen as lacking in communal traits (concern for others).

In fact, research has shown that when women are successful in such ‘masculine’ jobs they are seen as possessing characteristics that are the opposite of the prescriptive communal stereotype for women, and they are seen as bitter, quarrelsome selfish, deceitful, and devious. Just think of some of the negative media commentary about successful women politicians such as Hilary Clinton or Angela Merkel. These traits reflect the image of an individual who is cold, hostile, and devoid of interpersonal skills, and this can affect the promotional prospects of female managers.

Yet contrary to the stereotypes there is no evidence that men and women in general differ on the psychological attributes that predict high levels of job performance. While there are slight aggregated group difference, on average, between men and women on some personality traits these group difference are very small. So when it comes to, say, selecting between a man and a woman for a managerial job the reality is that the odds of finding a high performing women are as good as the odds of finding a high performing man.

As a result of these ubiquitous biases, at a macro level, organisations and economies lose out when the selection of people for managerial position is affected by biases and stereotypes such as those highlighted above, because the best person for the job may not have been selected in many cases. Finally, the stereotyping of women in accordance with ubiquitous prescriptive gender roles, such as are sometimes to be found in the popular media, can be detrimental to women when it comes to progressing in the workplace.

Unfortunately being competent does not ensure that a woman will advance to the same organisational level as an equivalent performing man.

Gerry Fahey is an occupational psychologist and a graduate of TCD and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

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