A glass wall between the camera and a computer working area

Re-post: Impostor syndrome and hiring power

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from earlier in the year. This post originally appeared on February 22, 2011.

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

What are some ways in which I can avoid rejecting people who suffer from impostor syndrome when they apply for a job?

I’ve recently been promoted to a position where I’m somewhat responsible for hiring people. I would like to increase the diversity of new hires, and so I’m more likely to put applications from women through to the interview stage.

Following that though I don’t want to lose out on quality applicants as they are modest about their achievements and abilities, due to impostor syndrome or otherwise.

Giving an automatic “+10 kickass” to every female applicant as they may suffer from impostor syndrome seems to be a strategy without much merit. Getting everyone to exhibit their full potential is clearly the better solution.

Can you suggest interview strategies that would create the environment in which women (and indeed anyone) will be better able to convince me of their suitability for the role?

I don’t have so many specific interview strategies, but I’ve got plenty of ideas for hiring strategies in general, I hope you can adopt some of them and perhaps our commenters can talk about the interview.

First, a should be obvious: a +10 kickass bonus may be illegal discrimination in your geographic area. If it is, definitely don’t do that.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about soliciting applications. Now, there’s a couple of things that stop some women at this point. First, there’s a tendency to regard themselves as underqualified for perfectly suitable jobs. Next, there’s concern that they needn’t bother, as a woman’s name will cause you to discount their resume. Some suggestions:

  1. get your signalling right. You want to say “women friendly employer” in your advertisements without discriminatory pro-women statements. This at least gets you past the “I’m not a man” part of impostor syndrome. Here’s some things you should be doing:
    • advertising all relevant open positions on a women’s job list such as, say, LinuxChix’s jobposts for open source jobs. This at least shows that you aren’t actively avoiding women applicants.
    • including on your full ads the “equal opportunity” boilerplate you might be able to find on other local job ads
    • including information on the “Careers” section of your website about your carer leave, your retirement contributions, your shared sick leave pool, your friendliness to part-time employees if any of these hold

    Not only are these things attractive to many women (and yes, some men as well) in and of themselves, they also signal in various ways that when you picture your new hire, the picture isn’t young, white, able-bodied, male, etc etc.

  2. if your employer has recently had a similar (especially perhaps slightly more junior) position available, get the resumes of the people who were considered the better applicants from the hiring manager, HR person or recruiter, and re-consider them for the new position (probably there would need to be some kind of process of tracking and perhaps re-application here, but I’ll handwave that problem to you).
  3. consider internal employees in more junior positions as potential applicants. Depending on the size of the company, other managers might be able to recommend people to you who are overqualified for their position (or possibly not, if they are getting good work from them)
  4. consider whether you really need experience that skews very very male. For example, does someone have to have open source development experience? Are there alternative ways that someone could have learned the skills you need?

And now for considering applications prior to interview:

  1. you may not be able to say you’re doing this, but in order to avoid bias on the basis of gender or other demographic characteristics, for as long as possible in the process keep names off resumes. Have names and addresses scraped from resumes by someone before you see them, and do as much ranking as you can prior to finding out the names and details of the applicants.
  2. avoid judgements about cultural fit at this stage.
  3. there are reasons companies rely on the recommendations of existing employees, but for each open position, try and select some applicants for interview who didn’t come in via the company networks in order to avoid duplicating your company’s present demographic by hiring all their friends

In the interview itself here is a strategy for getting people to talk about their successes when they are susceptible to impostor syndrome (note that any candidate might be part of an oppressed group, so don’t limit these to women candidates): ask about something the candidate did that benefited someone else. How did they save their company money or helped a team member learn what they needed to know? Present them with cooperative scenarios where they need to help you or your employer do something as well as or instead of competitive scenarios where they need to prove they are the single right person for the position. If anyone can flesh this out to specific example questions in the comments, that would be useful.

I strongly recommend reading Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever for good solid information both about women’s negotiation and self-promotion strategies and why they use those strategies, namely, that competitive and aggressive interpersonal strategies are simply not effective for most women because of negative responses to perceived aggression in women.

6 thoughts on “Re-post: Impostor syndrome and hiring power

  1. nonskanse

    As a geek woman, and having worked in the sw industry a while, I have to say that imposter syndrome can make you less effective at your job. I have it, and it made me doubt my technical chops, which made me waver at my job, which hurt my team (both during my time as a test developer and a program manager).
    As a developer, although you might be a great hire, if you can’t express confidence to all of the alpha males, your designs won’t be recognized, you won’t be seen as competent, and you won’t contribute as much to your company. It’s a vicious cycle and it drives women away. I’ve moved to something still in the industry but in an area where society tells me I’m a bit more competent …because I couldn’t take this cycle. Even though I’m aware of it all the time and I know it’s bull.
    My point follows: although you can’t really do anything about this at *hiring* time, you can provide mentors, you can confide in women you already work with, and you can raise the issue with women when you see it, after hiring. (“I’ve seen you working with so and so and I’ve noticed that you don’t always appear confident… read this stuff about imposter syndrome. When working in this environment, it’s important to remember that we wouldn’t have hired you if you weren’t good enough for this job, so stand up for yourself” etc)

  2. jd

    I’ve benefitted from skills-based interviews. Ask questions meant to test interviewees’ skill at the job they’ll be doing. I’ve interviewed men, and it was funny how much they focused on being the boss and working at high-status jobs. Certainly positives, but skills mattered more. As just one woman, I don’t want to be the boss and I’m not competitive (please don’t generalize that to all women), but I have the skills on my resume, which does make me +10 kickass.

  3. deborah

    One of my favorite questions to ask in an interview is “talk about a time you made a pretty major mistake, broke something, or otherwise screwed something up.” It’s a question people with imposter syndrome have ready answers to — but it’s also a really informative question to get it how awesome the candidate can be. Because a great candidate will be able to talk about a time they made a mistake and how they (a) fixed it and (b) changed their process so as not to make the same mistake the next time. I’ve learned a lot about good candidates from the question.

    Conversely, I once had one non-junior candidate who insisted up and down that he had never made any mistakes. Which was proof to me that he was either lying, or had never actually done any work.

  4. Addie

    An important complement to Impostor Syndrome that really helped me fill out my understanding of these issues is Stereotype Threat:Stereotype Threat at Work. As nonskanse mentioned, these issues don’t go away once a person is hired, and it takes some compassion and education on part of both of the organization and the person suffering from Impostor Syndrome / Stereotype Threat in order to help them thrive. Confidence issues need to be accepted as a normal part of working life for some developers, instead of asking them to assimilate to the hyper-masculine aggressiveness that currently defines much of industry culture.

  5. Lucy

    I would recommend avoiding words like “guru” or “expert” in job ads. If I see descriptions like that I immediately think “not me.”

  6. Steph

    This was something we talked about at the Women in Tech panel at LISA a few weeks ago. One suggestion that I loved came from a man who does a lot of interviewing and had thought a lot about how to circumvent the gap between people who over- and underestimate their abilities. In his organization they try to rate interviewees based on both their knowledge of a topic, AND how well their confidence about it mapped to their knowledge. This was a good way to take overconfident people down a notch and give a boost to people more willing to admit uncertainty.

    Also, thumbs up for not advertising for a “guru” or “expert”. Same goes for “ninja” and “rockstar”. Not very Socratic, huh?

Comments are closed.