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.

Interpreting letters of reference

Woman writing letterLetters of recommendation (or ‘references’) for job candidates can differ depending on whether the candidate is a man or a woman. For candidates of equal merit, letters of recommendation written for women are likely to be, for example, shorter, to emphasise supportive attributes rather than leadership qualities, and to contain few superlatives. These differences may reflect an unconscious bias among writers of such letters, who are usually senior men. By bearing in mind the possibility that men and women candidates could be described differently, members of selection panels may be able to moderate these differences and so minimise the effect of the bias.

To improve employment prospects for women, you could:

  • Recognise that references are difficult to write
  • Be alert to stereotypes
  • Recognise the scope of the reference
  • Interpret ‘faint praise’
  • Allow for the potential for leadership
  • Understand candidates’ own unconscious bias

Recognise that references are difficult to write

When a job applicant is seeking a letter of recommendation, they look for colleagues of high status to write them. While it remains the case that most senior colleagues in technical professions are men, it will also be the case that most letters of recommendation will be written by an older man. Sometimes, these letters reflect traditional values that place less value on women’s contributions.

It is also far easier to write a reference for someone similar to oneself, so a senior colleague more used to a male-dominated environment may find that writing a letter of recommendation for a junior woman presents some unfamiliar challenges.

Be alert to stereotypes

Writers of references often take up space in the letter setting out their own credentials as a referee, and, being inevitably more senior, their careers can diminish the applicant’s achievements in comparison. Letters for female applicants tend to be shorter than those for men, and include less specific information about the candidate. A short reference can be taken to mean that the writer was unenthusiastic about the candidate, but it could simply be that they did not know much about them, which makes their letter less reliable. Reference letters for the candidate who gets the job are usually the longest.

Some of the differences between references for men and women reinforce stereotypes. While a woman may be described as ‘this lady’ or even ‘this young lady’, a man will be described as ‘this colleague’ or ‘this engineer’. Men are sometimes credited with a sense of humour; women rarely are. Comments about appearance appear primarily in references for women; similarly, information about personal circumstances rarely appears in references for men (and is appropriate for neither). Compare reference letters across a group of applicants to identify differences of style and content before you use them to make judgements about the candidates.

Women are also described in terms of personal qualities such as ‘polite’, ‘cooperative’, and ‘thoughtful’, rather than their professional attributes. Men’s achievements are more likely to be described specifically and in technical terms, whereas women’s achievements are set out generally and in everyday language. So when reading a letter of recommendation, a selection panel should be alert to what may have been left out of descriptions of women.
If you are concerned about what is not being said, you could contact the referee to enquire about omissions.

Interpreting ‘faint praise’

Women are often recognised for their hard work, meticulousness, dedication and other such traits that show determined application and effort. This implies that what they achieve it is due to labour, rather than ability or talent. Women are also complimented on their pastoral work and on their ability to follow instructions.

References for male candidates often repeat positive words and use superlatives: an excellent candidate will be excellent in many regards, as well as superb and first-rate. References for women candidates are less likely to repeat positive words, although they may use them once.

A reference for a woman that is moderately positive may indicate a candidate who is just as good as a man whose reference is extremely positive. Women risk being damned by faint praise: their successes may be qualified. A woman may ‘hide her shyness well’; or achieve ‘despite personal issues’; or have succeeded ‘with the support of her manager’. It seems that the traditional feminine virtue of modesty is still being attributed even to successful professional women.

According to the University of Arizona’s Commission on the Status of Women, references about women use adjectives such as caring, compassionate, hard-working, conscientious, dependable, diligent, dedicated, tactful, interpersonal, warm and helpful. References about men use adjectives such as successful, excellent, accomplished, outstanding, skilled, knowledgeable, insightful, resourceful, confident, ambitious, independent and intellectual.

Allow for the potential for leadership

Status is often inferred from ownership. In the rhetoric of references, men have possession of their relevant assets: ‘his research’, or ‘his business connections’. Women are more likely to look involved rather than proprietorial: ‘the research from that group is … ‘, or ‘she interacts well with our business connections’. Women tend to be given possession of more personal qualities such as ‘her dedication’ and ‘her patience’. One tactic to make biases in the writing stand out is to gender swap reference letters. Does a phrase or sentence ‘sound wrong’ when it’s referring to a man rather than a woman? If so, that’s bias at work.

Men are described as agents: they make things happen. Women are described as concerned with the welfare of the group, supporting others and keeping things going. These are usually considered secondary roles in most organisations. In a business, making things happen is usually a role for management or leadership; supporting others is a more junior role. If a women is described more in terms of her supportive capacities than her male competitors for a job, then she is likely to look less well suited to a more senior or managerial post.

Understanding candidates’ own unconscious bias

Although most letters of recommendation are written by men, the letters written by women often show similar biases. Not only that, but women applicants themselves often make unduly modest claims about their own achievements in their covering letter or personal statement. It is therefore worth comparing the letters of recommendation and personal statements to the candidates’ CVs. As a factual list, the CV may allow for deeper insight into the more descriptive claims. For example, a woman who has ‘presented some papers at conferences’ may have given 14 papers and a keynote speech; ‘a few decent publications’ may have been in the highest quality journals; and good financial management skills may refer to an R&D budget in the millions. Identify modest claims and compare them to the facts provided in the CV. Is the candidate being unduly self-effacing?

While studies about the differences in letters of recommendation for men and women candidates come to some clear conclusions, less well understood is the extent to which these differences affect who is appointed. If the candidate is interviewed, their direct personal impact may render the written accounts less powerful. It is therefore important to interpret all the evidence you have about each candidate as a whole, and to understand how differing accounts can arise.

Fractional and flexible working policies

Woman at laptopFlexible and fractional (part-time) working are two key tools for employers who want to recruit and retain women, and support women wanting to return to the workforce after a career break. People are attracted to fractional and flexible working arrangements for many reasons, not least of which is balancing work with caring responsibilities, which still rest predominantly on women’s shoulders.

Companies that offer and support a variety of working patterns can benefit from a pool of highly qualified but under-utilised women. Fractional and flexible working can also promote a positive working culture and increase productivity, and support staff who want to enhance their qualifications. Considered implementation can also help to reduce the gender pay gap.

  • Understand employees’ rights and needs
  • Encourage positive attitudes to flexible and fractional working
  • Keep flexible and fractional colleagues involved
  • Establish a positive culture of flexible and fractional working

A ‘fractional’ job is a part-time role where the employee works for a specified fraction of a full-time equivalent (FTE) role, for example a 0.5FTE role would be for half of a standard 35-40 hour working week.

Flexible roles allow employees to choose when they work, often including hours outside the standard work day. They may also include the option to work from home. A flexible approach can accommodate not only fluctuating demands at work, but also events such as a sick dependent, a school concert, or having to get your car serviced.

Both fractional and full-time roles can be worked flexibly.

Understand employees’ rights and needs

In the UK, anyone who has been employed for six months may request flexible working. Because fractional and flexible working is very attractive to women, especially those for whom a full-time might be challenging, it is good practice to offer it as standard, either with a personal plan or using common options such as:

  • Term-time only
  • Annualised hours, eg working the equivalent of 10 months per year
  • Compressed hours, eg such as working a full week over four days

If an employee asks to go part-time, it may be that they actually need the flexibility rather than reduced hours (and salary). A request for fractional or flexible work is a great opportunity to think creatively about the possibilities for changing broader working patterns, and to ask staff what hours they currently work, and what hours would they like to work. Use case studies of fractional and flexible working to help staff understand their rights. Using both women and men as role models can help to normalise these ways of working.

About three-quarters of requests for flexible working are approved, which suggests that most applicants think responsibly about what they can ask for. If a request is refused, it should be on the basis of reasoned arguments and evidence that it would not support the business need.

When a company commits to improving diversity and inclusion, offering fractional and flexible working is a good way to widen the pool of applicants to your job ads.

Attitudes to flexible and fractional working

Fractional employees are more likely to be women, so supporting their career development can make an important contribution to reducing the gender pay gap. Promotion processes and bonus structures should reflect the contribution that fractional employees make to a business, and should not negatively affect their chances of being promoted or receiving a bonus or pay increase. Indeed, it is against the law to judge an employee simply on the basis that their appointment is fractional or flexible. Focus on the quality of their contribution when thinking about promotion or benefits.

Unfortunately, although fractional appointments are common, they can attract negative attitudes such as ‘presenteeism’, where employees are judged on how long they are physically present at work. Such attitudes not only discriminate against fractional and flexible employees, they also perpetuate a culture of long working hours, which pressures people to work longer hours than necessary and to work when sick. Do not assume that employees who work flexibly or fractionally are not ambitious. Make sure that all staff are treated equitably, and are given the same career development opportunities.

Employers can counter presenteeism by recognising the contributions that fractional employees make to the business. Fractional staff should not be described as ‘part-time’ on staff lists or business cards — their working pattern is not relevant to the quality of their work. Indeed, working part-time or flexibly may even enhance an employee’s contributions — those who have a positive work-life balance are often the most positive about their job, and are more productive as a consequence.

Keep flexible and fractional colleagues involved

A company that supports flexible working will need to ensure that all colleagues are able to participate fully in the workplace. For example, project meetings at 8.30am or 4.00pm may exclude anyone who has to do the school run. Senior management meetings at these times may deter parents from seeking promotion. It therefore makes sense to ensure that there is a set time each week when all members of the team are in the office to attend team meetings.

Another good way to keep colleagues in the loop is to use alternatives to email, such as real-time discussion tools like Slack, video conferencing services, and project wikis. Provide access to and training on remote working technologies to all staff to improve inclusion and encourage collaboration. However, it is important to remember that flexible workers work flexibly for a reason, and their other commitments must be respected.

Social events are important to develop team relationships, but when they are scheduled after work or at weekends they may exclude parents and carers — lunchtimes can provide a more inclusive alternative.

Establishing a culture of flexible working

Managers play a key role within any organisation, in terms of how fractional and flexible working is enacted on the ground. They help build employee relationships, and support career progression as their staff grow and develop in their roles.

Managers should not only be aware of the benefits of fractional and flexible working, they should be discussing options with staff during reviews and appraisals, as well as considering how these employment structures might benefit specific projects or teams. Ensure that the organisation’s commitment to flexible working is highlighted to managers during key processes, such as recruitment and appraisals.

Recruitment and HR teams especially should be aware of staff’s rights with respect to fractional and flexible working. They should review recruitment and internal communications materials to ensure that they properly reflect both employee rights and the company’s broader policies.

Many employees may not have thought about fractional or flexible working, so showcasing positive stories, particularly by inviting flexible and fractional workers to share and discuss their experience, will help them understand their options.

When staff transition to flexible or fractional working, they may benefit from formal or informal mentoring from an experienced colleague, especially if they are new to the idea.

Attracting and retaining female employees

Two women at laptopRecruiting more women is key to addressing the shortage of qualified STEM professionals, and a strong commitment to recognising what women want from a job, and fulfilling those needs, will help you increase the number of women in your workplace. You will also be better placed to create a welcoming and inclusive environment that will improve staff retention, thus cutting down on recruitment costs and minimising the loss of expertise and knowledge when staff leave.

Understanding women’s motivations — why a woman might choose your job over another — will help you to craft meaningful job descriptions, compelling job ads, and inspiring HR communications materials. For example, only one in eight graduates is motivated primarily by salary. Rather, candidates are concerned with opportunities for promotion, flexibility and a good work-life balance, long-term security, access to further training, and the social worth of the work. Furthermore, women are more likely than men to value training, security, flexibility and jobs with social value.

Simple things you can do to attract more women include:

  • Be clear about, and publicise, your organisation’s values
  • Support the forming of positive relationships among colleagues
  • Ensure internal communication is effective, fair and respectful
  • Provide a clean, comfortable and healthy workplace

Be clear about organisational values

Many aspects of working life matter equally to all employees, however, women often prefer to work in an organisation where the corporate values resonate with their personal values, so include your organisation’s mission, ethics and CSR statements in your application pack. Being clear about your values doesn’t just improve your relationship with your staff, it also helps you develop trust with investors, sponsors, neighbours, and customers, as well as in informing business strategy.

The articulation of values sometimes forms part of a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda, which may be the responsibility of the human resources, marketing, or public relations teams. CSR has clear links to a company’s reputation, and so to its success. However, it is essential that values are developed not merely as a marketing exercise, but as a sincere expression of the practices and aims of the company. They should be embedded throughout organisational processes, including the performance review process and in job competencies. Involving women and other minority groups in drafting inclusive CSR policies and goals is a good way to develop your organisation’s relationships with those groups, and so to attract and retain them as employees.

Provide a space and time for relationships to form

When employees feel clear about, and at home with, an organisation’s values and culture, they are more likely to feel positive about each other too. For women employees, developing good relationships at work can add significantly to their sense of belonging. During your recruitment process, provide applicants with informal contacts among current staff from whom they can gain ‘insider knowledge’.

Organisations sometimes assume that women can only be friendly with women, so if the majority of employees are men, women are marginalised and see fewer opportunities to develop positive professional relationships. Men should be encouraged to view getting to know women colleagues as a routine professional responsibility.

Building relationships takes time: are there enough moments in the working day for staff to interact, and enough places and events for them to do so? Many businesses schedule social events after work, which can be problematic for women who are more likely to have domestic responsibilities that men do not. Careful thought should also be given to the role of alcohol, as relying on ‘going to the pub’ can be alienating for anyone who doesn’t drink, and for women who may feel less comfortable in a pub environment. Instead, provide opportunities for people to gather and chat over lunch, or set aside time each month for an informal gathering during office hours.

Create a communications culture that involves and supports women

Strong professional relationships can substantially aid in another area that many women consider important: communication. Where social networks include women, women are more likely to pick up on local knowledge and breaking news, and feel involved in the life of the workplace.

Where the upper management is predominantly male, women have less access to corporate planning and decision-making. If they are cut out of these processes, women will seek new roles where they can have influence, so examine your formal and informal communication practices and check for direct and indirect discrimination. For example, word-of-mouth will reach people on site, while group emails will also reach those working from home (who are more likely to be women). Use more than one tool to send your from home (who are more likely to be women). Use more than one tool to send your messages, so that you increase the chance everyone will be successfully reached. Understand how your staff receive and send information, and use those same tools.

Communication is about talking as well as listening. Studies have shown that men talk more than women, and that women are interrupted more. It’s thus unsurprising that women feel less confident that they can make suggestions in the workplace and be listened to, and not penalised. Women who do express an opinion are sometimes described as feisty, aggressive or stroppy, whereas for men, speaking out is seen as proof of their leadership potential.

Create a communications culture that encourages women to speak, where their words carry weight and and are respected, and where interruptions are the exception not the rule. Encourage women when they show the same leadership traits as their male colleagues.

Your workplace can be a tool for retention

It is well established that, over their career, women are likely to earn 20 per cent less than their male colleagues. While women may recognise the unfairness of the general situation, they are much less likely than men to walk away from a job opportunity for financial reasons. Other, non-financial, benefits are very important, for example, having a clean and comfortable working environment matters. Ergonomically appropriate chairs and desks, clean carpets, and effective lighting all contribute to a positive environment. Call for volunteers for a well-being ‘user group’, and respond to their feedback.

Keeping staff fed and watered can also enhance well-being, performance and collegiality. Old kettles and dirty mugs are unpleasant for everyone, but women in particular are deterred from using poor facilities. Worse, they may find themselves clearing up after their colleagues, as they are often expected to carry out ‘domestic’ tasks, even in the workplace. Keeping kitchen facilities clean and tidy should be everyone’s responsibility.

Women are more likely than men to bring food from home, and so people with a packed lunch should be able to eat it in the dining area alongside their colleagues. Friendships, creative encounters, information exchange and unlikely collaborations all happen over food, so making the dining area a place everyone wants to use can have many positive effects for your organisation.

Candidates also care about details like the quality of food in the staff canteen, so show off your facilities in your applicant pack, and ensure that interviewees can see a pleasant working environment when they attend their interview.

Pre-register your school group for ALD Live 2019

Yasmin Ali

If you’re a teacher or parent looking for a way to inspire girls to focus on science GCSEs and A-Levels, then now is the time to pre-register for free tickets to Ada Lovelace Day Live! 2019, our annual science show on the evening of Tuesday 8 October 2019, at The IET in London.

Ada Lovelace Day Live! is a ‘science cabaret’ featuring seven women in science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM), each talking about their research or work for ten minutes. The event is suitable for students aged 12 and older, and is a fantastic way to show them that not only are STEM careers fascinating and fulfilling, but also that women can be very successful. You can watch all the talks from previous years on our YouTube channel.

If you are interested in booking free tickets for a group, please take a moment to complete this very short form. The tickets themselves will be made available towards the end of the summer, once we have this year’s speaker line-up confirmed, but we’d like to give schools the opportunity to skip to the head of the queue!