Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

Re-post: How do you look for jobs in an industry known for biases against women?

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on October 11, 2012.

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the headlines: “Study shows scientists are biased against women.” Specifically, the study shows that when offered resumes that were identical except for the name on the top, scientists of all genders tended to be more willing to offer jobs (and more money) to the male candidate, indicating that they felt “him” more qualified.

I personally like this write-up from the Scientific American Blog best because it doesn’t pull any punches on what this means:

Whenever the subject of women in science comes up, there are people fiercely committed to the idea that sexism does not exist. They will point to everything and anything else to explain differences while becoming angry and condescending if you even suggest that discrimination could be a factor. But these people are wrong. This data shows they are wrong. And if you encounter them, you can now use this study to inform them they’re wrong. You can say that a study found that absolutely all other factors held equal, females are discriminated against in science. Sexism exists. It’s real. Certainly, you cannot and should not argue it’s everything. But no longer can you argue it’s nothing.

We are not talking about equality of outcomes here; this result shows bias thwarts equality of opportunity.

As a woman who plans to be on the job market next fall after my postdoc finishes, probably interviewing with the same type of academic scientist highlighted in the study, this is incredibly disheartening news. I console myself by thinking “Well, at least with all this publicity, more folk will be aware of such biases during my job hunt” but it’s meager compensation for this reminder that the deck could easily be stacked against me regardless of my personal qualifications.

So this leads me to the question: How do you look for jobs in an industry known for biases against women? (Or people of colour, or LBGT folk, or people over the age of 25, or…)

Avoiding bias is hard, and completely avoiding it is likely impossible unless you get very lucky. But are there strategies that might help? Here’s a few I’ve thought of:

1. Aim for organizations that are aware of the biases in the industry

It’s very hard to overcome biases unless you are made aware of them, so it makes sense to target companies (or banks, or academic institutions, etc.) that have made that crucial first step. But how do you find these organizations?

Check who they sponsor: I blogged about why I was so happy to be kicking off my job hunt at the 2012 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and a large reason is that those organizations were demonstrating a financial and social commitment to getting more women applicants. Check the list of sponsors for events and organizations that are known to attract people like you. For example, if you’re seeking to avoid bias against women in technology you might want to look at the sponsors not only of the Grace Hopper Celebration but also the Ada Initiative, the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology the National Centre for Women in Technology, and maybe even the BlogHer conference, among others.

Ask around: Mailing lists like Systers or Linuxchix often allow discreet postings to ask about companies (you may prefer to anonymize yourself to do the asking!), plus you can ask folk in person at conferences. You can also do some web searching to that effect: sometimes people do report bad and good incidents and name company names, and sites like GlassDoor may give you other insight into company culture. For example, at least a websearch could help you be wary of this racist game development shop that recently made the news

Check their online presence: I don’t personally assume that not having any women featured on your jobs site is necessarily a sign of much more than poor choice of clip art, but sometimes you can get a lot of insight into company culture and potential biases by seeing what image they strive to project to the world.

Check where they’re located: The location of a company will probably affect some of the subconscious biases. I haven’t read any detailed studies about this (please feel free to link them in the comments) but it seems likely that a company which is situated in an area just full of people like you is may be likely to exhibit biases. (This doesn’t always work, though — I live in predominantly hispanic New Mexico, but the clash of our proximity to the Mexican border and the cultural attitudes of the USA towards immigration leaves me hearing some appallingly racist things when I’m out in public.)

2. Don’t let the risk of bias scare you away from good jobs

What if you’re interested in smaller companies and there’s little to no way to get information about them short of setting up an interview? What if the organization you’ve always dreamed of has a bad rep? Should you steer clear?

That’s really a decision you have to make yourself based on the information you’ve gathered and your own tolerance levels, but by and large if you think the job is something you’d like to do, you should try anyhow. You can always hope that you’ll be so perfect for the job that you’ll blow away all biases!

3. Be a chameleon?

I hate hate hate giving this advice. But if I’m going to be honest with myself, I have to admit that I am a half-white, half-asian woman who sometimes spends some effort to “pass” as white because doing so greatly limits the amount of racism that I encounter on a regular basis. If it makes you more comfortable and gets you to the interview stage where you can rock their socks off, maybe being J. Smith instead of Jane Smith on your resume is a viable strategy. There was a widely reported study that showed that traditionally African-American names on resumes garnered fewer callbacks, so there’s clearly reason to believe that disguising yourself might give you a stronger chance.

The idealist in me thinks this is awful, but the practical scientist in me figures that this is just another tool to limit the bias to which you expose yourself.

4. Be prepared to handle bias

You’re not going to be able to diffuse every possible situation, but just like it’s worth preparing well for technical interview questions, it’s worth preparing yourself for things that might go wrong in the interview. Don’t be broadsided if there’s an off-colour comment when you have lunch with the team, or if someone asks an inappropriate question — being able to handle mishaps smoothly and without blowing up will tend to make you look better, and while there are shades of tone argument involved here, I think it is true that an interview is one way that an organization is evaluating you under pressure. Handling everything, even stuff you shouldn’t have to handle, with calm professional restrain will likely make you look good. The people you deal with may have absolutely no idea of their biases and will make you out as the bad guy if you point them out, and it’s up to you whether you’re willing to work with them as an employee or you’d like to just avoid the situation all together. (And do remember that you can sometimes quietly put in a word with the recruiter or hiring manager if you turn a job down.)

Also, please don’t let the “I must be professional” over-ride your own gut instincts — a job is not worth sexual assault or other abuse and should also prepare yourself to walk away if the interview environment seems unsafe to you. I’ve never had an interview that bad myself, but I’ve seen quite a range of highly inexperienced interviewers and heard some horror stories from other women. Please be safe.

It’s really hard to strike a balance between being prepared for bias and going in combative, expecting bias and maybe seeing it where it isn’t happening. I don’t have any great suggestions there except that you should use your judgement.

More generally, there are some good coping resources and examples of bias to be found on the Geek Feminism Wiki if you want to be prepared. If you have any other suggestions of great resources or specific pages within the wiki you’d like to highlight for job-seekers, please leave comments below!


So… that’s my list thus far of tips for job hunting in a biased industry, but I’m only just starting to gear up for my latest job hunt. Lots of you have more or different experiences: what would you suggest to make the job hunt more pleasant?

PS – Since I know someone will ask: I’m currently looking for a job as a computer security researcher, open to working in academia, industry, government, wherever as long as it’s interesting. I’m not particularly looking for a job writing (although most readers here know me mostly by my writing!) although if anyone at Boing Boing is interested, I would happily make an exception for you ’cause you’re awesome.

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About terriko

Terri has a PhD in horribleness, assuming we can all agree that web security is kind of horrible. She stopped working on skynet (err, automated program repair and AI) before robots from the future came to kill her and got a job in open source, which at least sounds safer. Now, she gets paid to break things and tell people they're wrong, and maybe help fix things so that people won't agree so readily with the first sentence of this bio in the future. Terri writes/tweets under the name terriko, enjoys making things and mentoring others and has a plain ol' home page at http://terri.toybox.ca.