Shortlisting and interviewing women

Interview panelThe shortage of qualified STEM professionals is one symptom of the fact that well- trained women are not progressing in their careers at the same rate as their male colleagues. Indeed, evidence shows that female graduates are more likely to take lower quality jobs than men. That discrepancy persists throughout women’s careers, not least because traditional recruitment techniques can deter women and fail to reveal their talents.

To achieve a more diverse workforce in STEM, your appointment processes may need to change to accommodate the differing needs of women applicants. To support the recruitment and retention of women, you could:

  • Ensure that the selection committee is diverse
  • Scrutinise your shortlisting process
  • Use consistent language
  • Select according to explicit criteria
  • Think about the long term

Ensure that your selection committee is diverse

Diverse hiring panels reduce implicit bias and increase the chance that all candidates will be assessed fairly. Many major companies have now made hiring committees diverse by default and are seeing an increase in the diversity of hires. Bear in mind that if your panel includes no women or, worse, if it includes a woman who is not making a full and equal contribution, you are unlikely to hire any women. If the selection panel is to be chaired, appoint someone other than the most senior man, and do not make the women in your selection committee the only note takers.

Explicit demographic information is usually removed from job applications to avoid selecting for or against particular demographics. This can make it very difficult to monitor how diverse your candidate pool is at any stage of the appointment process. You can solve this problem by nominating a diversity lead to keep the committee alert to any problems throughout the process. If this is not possible, then a retrospective analysis can help with future recruitment.

Scrutinise your shortlisting process

Selection committee members should shortlist independently, using an agreed list of requirements and characteristics in a scoring matrix. Ensure that there are consistent processes, for example, for taking career breaks into account or for excluding candidates. Where shortlisting shows a high degree of consensus, check that this is not the result of habit, or deference to the most senior person on the shortlisting panel. Where the shortlisting shows wide variation, check for the committee’s understanding of the role, job description, and corporate values, and justify each decision with reference to the agreed list of requirements and characteristics.

Unconscious bias can have an impact on shortlisting in many ways. Some people may be more willing, for example, to appoint a woman to a junior role than to a senior role. And women often undersell their achievements, while men are better at asserting their talents. So it is important not to dismiss any candidate out of hand, but to examine the details for each candidate. An unexpected or atypical candidate should be given the same degree of attention as an expected or stereotypical candidate.

For candidates at a mid- or late-career stage, women are more likely than men to have had time out for family responsibilities, but career breaks do not diminish talent. Judge on the basis of what has been achieved, rather than on how quickly a career has developed, or on what may have been missed. Career breaks or periods of part-time working can affect areas such as publication records, maintaining networks, or the ability to take up placements, secondments, or opportunities in different geographical locations.

If your shortlist is not diverse, make it longer, and ask your diversity to lead shed light on what in the process so far might have resulted in bias. At what point did the women disappear? There may be time to ask your staff to suggest women, including internal candidates, who can be asked to apply. If you have good internal candidates that did not not apply, find out why. Consider a champion system where women are directly encouraged to apply for promotions or new roles.

Use consistent language

Ensure that you use the same language with all the candidates. Some people inadvertently slip into a different way of talking when they are addressing a woman. They may become more casual, which can give the impression that they are not taking the interview seriously. They may slip into language more suitable for children, such as ‘just pop along the corridor’ or ‘sit yourself down here’. Treat every candidate with respect.

Similarly, some people talk about women differently from men. A male candidate might be ‘the man with the PhD in maths’ or ‘the former soldier’, while a female candidate might be ‘the one in the red jacket’ or ‘the woman who smiled a lot’. Only remark on qualities relevant to the appointment process.

It is also common for women to be called by their given name when men are called by their family name. It can be a good discipline to refer only to candidates or applicants, which are gender-neutral terms, and use surnames for everyone. Always use titles such as Dr or Professor and use the same level of formality with women as you do with men.

Select according to explicit criteria

Structured interviews are one of the most valid methods of selection. Just as shortlisting should be undertaken by reference to set criteria, so should the final appointment. These criteria should be used to prepare the interview questions, and should be in the mind of everyone on the selection committee during the interview. There should also be a clear understanding from the panel what a ‘good’ answer would look like.

Treat the interview as an information gathering exercise rather than a decision making exercise:

  • Remove all discussion of ‘fit’
  • Consider multiple mini-interviews
  • Remind panellists to be fair and to keep good notes, and that they will be accountable for their decisions.
  • Insist panellists stick to the processes

You will be asking all candidates the same questions. Be sure to include some questions about aspects of the job that women tend to do well, such as communication, building relationships, teamwork, organisational mission and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Remember that women tend to think about their job as something to do, rather than something to be, so ask about how the applicant likes to work, not just what they hope to become in the post.

You can also include questions that refer to company life more broadly, such as how the candidate would support a team member with a mental health problem, how they would run an open day for schoolchildren, or what they would do to encourage car-sharing.

It is tempting to judge candidates on how well they handled the interview, even though this may have little to do with the skills they will need in the post. If you are appointing a sales manager or a press officer, it might be relevant that the candidate is outgoing, energetic, persuasive and smartly dressed. However, if you are looking for someone who can work quietly on their own and then produce a clearly written report, you are unlikely to see their relevant talents in a standard interview. Be sure to take full account of past career experience, and not just not the performance in the interview.


Feedback is important to help candidates understand their strengths and weaknesses. The Women in the Workplace 2016 report from Lean In and McKinsey found that women are just as likely to ask for feedback as their male colleagues, but are less likely to get it, though when they do it is vague and non-specific. You should consider giving actionable feedback as standard, especially for roles where there is a paucity of women.

It is the interviewer’s responsibility to compile constructive feedback:

  • Use a scoring grid
  • Feedback should be timely, detailed, complete and balanced
  • Keep good interview notes that you can refer back to
  • Back up your decision with relevant examples from their interview
  • Be constructive and descriptive but not judgemental

Think about the long term

Women are more likely than men to have been denied opportunities to develop their experience in previous jobs. They are also less likely to have been able to devote time to volunteer projects related to their field of expertise. If they are lacking some important experience, but are strong in other areas, provide training. This investment will not only pay off if, as a result, you secure a high-quality employee for the longer term, it can also be used to attract female candidates who are more likely to value training opportunities.

Women who have been on a career break may need time to re-adjust to work. Such candidates bring not only talent, but also a more varied set of life experiences to your business. Their experiences can be highly valuable, providing different points of view.

If you find that women are not applying for your vacancies, use the data to raise the issue within your organisation. Do you need to think about how you might do better in the future? If women are applying but are not well qualified, think about how you can reach potential employees to offer guidance, mentorship and potentially work experience. Could you be developing internships or supporting technical education in your region? Work with a local school or university to offer placements, project opportunities, talks and open days. You could inspire future employees, and you will learn about how the education system is preparing young people for your industry.

Posted in Advocacy & Policy.

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