Why You Should Be More Audacious in Your Job Search

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog

As I spoke on the phone with Holly Falk-Krzesinski, Vice President of Global Academic and Research Relations at Elsevier, I lamented the paucity of jobs that fit in with my current status, an academic looking to transition into science communications part-time or remotely so that I can also focus on freelance work.  As primary caregiver of a two-year-old, taking full-time work or a long commute is difficult for me to consider right now. Holly’s response took me by surprise: “Call them and ask!” she ordered. She went on to say that just because companies don’t advertise specific jobs, or specific aspects of positions (or over what they are willing to compromise) doesn’t mean they’re not open to such ideas. “That takes some audacity,” I thought to myself, and in truth, that’s exactly what most of us need in our job search — especially women.

Why should we be bolder? And why should we put ourselves out there more often?  Well, the short answer is simply out of necessity. Because in truth, as women we may find greater difficulty snagging that dream job in the first place, given the barriers we face.

In 2012, Yale University researchers created fictitious students named Jennifer and John, whose training and achievements were identical.  Either John’s or Jennifer’s resume was sent to 127 professors of biology, chemistry, and physics at six top US universities. The professors were asked to evaluate the applicant and make a salary offer. Although Jennifer was rated as more likeable, John was viewed as more competent, and respondents said that they preferred to mentor him. Additionally, John was offered a salary of nearly $4,000 more than Jennifer. The lead author of the study, Corinne Moss-Racusin, has stressed that the participants were likely unaware of this bias. But according to the PNAS paper, they may well be “affected by enduring cultural stereotypes about women’s lack of science competence that translate into biases in evaluation and mentoring.” The study’s findings are even more striking given that the woman was perceived to be more likeable.

Failure (by both sexes) to perceive women scientists as both likeable and competent, as opposed to either/or, for example, seems to underscore a trend particular to the US.  Eileen Pollack, author of The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science is Still a Boys’ Club, addresses this and related topics in the book, which is a hybrid memoir of her experiences as an undergraduate physics major at Yale and a critique of science culture in academia and its treatment of women. She relays her conversation with Meg Urry, professor of physics and astronomy at her alma mater: “Urry told me that at the space telescope institute where she used to work, the women from Italy and France ‘dress very well, what Americans would call revealing. You’ll see a Frenchwoman in a short skirt and fishnets; that’s normal for them. The men in those countries seem able to keep someone’s sexual identity separate from her scientific identity. American men can’t seem to appreciate a woman as a woman and as a scientist; it’s one or the other.’ ”

As Pollack and others argue, it is the repeated exposure of women to such stereotypical views that undermines our perception of ourselves (and other women), and which likely accounts for the lack of women in STEM fields, especially at its highest levels. In her book, Pollack points out that the disparity between the sexes in the sciences is largely a cultural, and not biological, phenomenon. She refers to significant research in support of her claims, which were ignited, in part, by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers’ suggestion, in 2005, that there may be inherent differences in scientific and mathematical aptitude between boys and girls, which might account for the paucity of tenured women in these fields.

The Mathematical Society attempted to answer whether gender might play a role in perceived differences in mathematical aptitude by analyzing the performance of women in other cultures. Their 2008 study concluded that such aptitude “is due, in significant part, to changeable factors that vary with time, country and ethnic group. First and foremost, some countries identify and nurture females with very high ability in mathematics at a much higher frequency than do others.” While it isn’t unexpected that societal encouragement (or discouragement) can affect a student’s ability to perform, this has also been confirmed in a frequently cited study from researchers at the University of Michigan. Students with similar backgrounds and abilities in math were divided into two groups: one group was told that men perform better on math tests than women, and the second group was told that despite what they may have heard, there was no difference. Then both were given a test. The findings?  In the first group, men outscored women by 20 points; in the second, they outscored women by only two.

Pollack highlights the views of Londa Schiebinger, professor at Stanford and author of Has Feminism Changed Science?, who believes that women are conspicuously absent in STEM fields because girls are raised to be modest, while boys learn to exaggerate their intelligence and success. Further, girls take the boys’ limited appraisal of their skills at face value, and feel even worse about themselves. Schiebinger cites a study that found that 75% of the women who gave up science, compared with fewer than half the men, mentioned low self-esteem as their reason.

For many female scientists I talk to, encouragement is not commonly a key component of the adviser-graduate student/postdoc relationship. I wonder how many qualified women have fallen by the wayside because of this missing critical piece. Jo Handelsman, the senior author of the Jennifer/John study, believes that women need more reinforcement than men, but only because women spend their lives resisting the stereotype of the male scientist, but also because “men don’t realize they’ve been getting this subliminal encouragement all along, as well as the explicit encouragement.”

It’s not just a matter of feeling more confident in our abilities and decisions, but it is this mistrust in ourselves, this perpetual questioning of our own authenticity and our value, that in many ways, makes us complicit in all the “micro” (and not so “micro”) challenges that we endure. We are often enablers of our own unfortunate fates by failing to see that something is amiss in the first place. Fighting subliminal bias while shouldering our own versions of “imposter syndrome” may seem insurmountable, but I do not believe it is beyond correction. To a large degree, this bias is a generational symptom that should improve as the Old Guard moves on. Are things as bad as they once were? No. Could they be better? Always. We do not need to wait for (r)evolution to render this belief system obsolete.  But before we can begin to propel more women into the upper echelons of STEM fields, there must be collective acknowledgement of the ways in which girls and women are marginalized and the extent to which our own lack of self-assurance contributes.

A dangerous consequence of our consistent exposure to bias is that because it is so prevalent, it comes to seem perfectly normal, even “natural,” as we become desensitized to negative portrayals of women and questionable claims.

Probably the best example of this is the Hewlett Packard (HP) internal report cited by Sheryl Sandberg in her bestselling and oft-cited primer for professional women, Lean In.  She relays the statistic that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100% of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60% of the requirements. That’s a striking claim that appears to underscore the pervasiveness of women’s lack of confidence. Except that there’s nothing to substantiate this claim. As I searched for the original article about this in order to link it to my post, I ran into many second-generation citations: articles quoting other articles that mentioned the finding, but none of them citing the actual study. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) cited a Forbes article; the Forbes article cited nothing. Sandberg cited the article, A business case for women, published in The McKinsey Quarterly, which simply referred to the internal research at HP. But that was it. Nowhere could I find methodology, sample size, questions asked, demographics related to the population analyzed, or motivation behind the study. Nowhere could I find anything more than a generalization that somehow made its way into mainstream.

So, how did anecdotal data become “fact”?  Perhaps writers were too busy putting their own spin on the findings: The relatively benign language used in the McKinsey Quarterly story relays a generalization about action —Women only apply for jobs if they think they meet 100% of the criteria listed. The mainstream media reports, on the other hand, circulate suppositions about the underlying motivation — Men are confident about their ability at meeting 60% of the qualifications, but women don’t feel confident until they’ve checked off each item on the list (Forbes). Such an interpretation is quite a leap; the conclusion that women’s confidence is to blame is both convenient and problematic.

Not only must we defend ourselves against the very real obstacles we encounter, now we must be wary of so-called claims that attempt to strip away any progress we have made – Trojan horse claims that on the outside appear to be worthwhile and useful tools for improvement, but upon closer inspection, are unsubstantiated and disparaging.

Entrepreneur and expert on women’s leadership Tara Mohr conducted her own study on the HP statistic, published in Harvard Business Review. She was skeptical of the conclusion that women needed to have more faith in themselves “because the times I had decided not to apply for a job because I didn’t meet all the qualifications, faith [in] myself wasn’t exactly the issue. I suspected I wasn’t alone.”  She surveyed 1,000 professional men and women in the US and asked them to identify the reasons why they didn’t apply for job postings in which they were interested. The least common reason was, “I was following the guidelines about who should apply,” which 9% of men and 15% of women cited. Similarly, relatively few — 10% of men and 12% of women — were worried that they would be unable to do the job well.  In fact, what most determined whether or not one applied was the belief that if they did not meet all of the qualifications, they would not get hired (46% men vs. 41% women).  Mohr concluded that gender may not be linked to any inherent mistrust about abilities; in fact, in most categories on her questionnaire men and women score similarly. For example, for the majority of respondents simply believing that they would not be hired was sufficient reason to not apply because either “I didn’t want to waste my time and energy” or “I didn’t want to put myself out there if I was likely to fail” (68% of men vs. 61% of women). Not surprisingly, neither sex was willing to put in the effort if the return seemed nonexistent. Now, somewhat pronounced differences between the sexes do emerge with respect to worry about failure (13% men vs. 22% women) and following guidelines (9% men vs. 15% women), with nearly double the percentage of women citing these reasons compared to men, but still the overall percentages are relatively low.  The original HP report lacked any information about what percentage of women were part of the cohort who needed to check off every qualification off on their list – one can only assume all women were universally implicated in this phenomenon. For Mohr, the important takeaway from her HBR study is not that women mistrust their own abilities, but rather that there is a misunderstanding shared by both women and men about how recruitment works: “[Applicants] didn’t see the hiring process as one where advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing one’s expertise could overcome not having the skills and experiences outlined in the job qualifications.”

I’ve never met Holly Falk-Krzesinski in person, yet I know from her LinkedIn profile (one of the most viewed on the entire site!) that once upon a time, she was a successful microbiologist with her own lab at Northwestern who went on to also acquire significant expertise in science research career development, scholarly communication/open access, and mentoring women in STEM disciplines. She is also founding president of the National Organization of Research Development Professionals, in addition to her current position at Elsevier. So, when a mutual contact suggested that I reach out to her, my first thought was, “She is an extraordinarily busy and successful woman – why would she want to talk to me?” But within hours of sending out my first apprehensive email, I had a phone conference scheduled, during which Holly and I spoke for over an hour as she kindly offered suggestion after suggestion about how to effectively brand myself, as well as potential careers that could fit in with my background.  A few days after our initial phone call, I sent her an email after encountering an obstacle and asked for advice. She told me to call her immediately. Holly seems to live and breathe the qualities of a caring mentor who isn’t afraid to point out your own self-sabotage. “This is the first email you ever sent me that sounded apologetic,” she said.

Education and publications will only get us so far. In our pursuit of careers outside the academy, we all must start relying on skills we may not even be aware we possess: coaching, teaching, communication, leadership, collaboration, critical thinking, and other “soft” skills that are equally crucial.  Most of us have learned how to work independently, how to take negative results and shift our focus to new research trajectories, and how to effectively market our findings and turn them into publications and funded research grants. As Mohr noted, we should prioritize “taking a creative approach to framing our expertise.”  So apply for that job that might seem like a long shot; in fact, apply to all of them. Take steps to expand your network – send emails, make phone calls, and reach out over social networking platforms such at LinkedIn and Twitter. The worst thing that may happen is you don’t get a response. The best thing that may happen is that you completely change your life for the better, and that’s nothing anyone needs to feel apologetic about.