5 Common Mistakes that Women Make During Job Interviews

Over the years I've worked in industries heavily dominated by women - education, events management and the association sector. This, along with recent discussions with professional recruiters around the different ways that men and women play the recruitment game has fuelled my interest. Additionally, with so much research available now about the differences between male and female brain biology and socialisation, there are plenty of inferences to be made about why sometimes, even though a woman might have been the best person for the job, she might miss out at interview stage - particularly if the interview panel is predominantly male. Here are some of the errors  I've learned about to help you avoid making the same mistakes.


1. Not getting to the point: I admire Naomi Simson immensely, in particular an article she wrote in 2012 providing career advice for her daughters.  She mentions women "using 10 words when one will do" and that really resonates for me. Sometimes as women we are used to using lots of words when hanging out with our girlfriends and lots of words are valued. We forget that this is not a great strategy in an interview.  Too many words can camouflage clear communication about capabilities, strategy and leadership potential. 

The fix? Given the direct link with great leadership and communication, in preparation rehearse your interview out loud with a trusted friend or mentor. Think of it like preparing to present in front of an audience. Verbally (not mentally) rehearse answers on key themes that you guess might be important based on the job advertisement and your CV. Be clear, remember the rule of three and don't believe for a minute that a pause or silence is negative. 

2. Using "we" instead of "I": Possibly because women have been socialised to be community/family oriented and trained from birth not to big note ourselves, we frequently make the mistake of referring to work that we did as a collaborative effort. This not only diffuses responsibility but also makes you appear less capable. As we move higher up the "food chain" in our careers, we need to learn to be able to clearly articulate our part in any of the work we did including:

  • The team I led,
  • The organisation I headed up,
  • The projects I managed.

The fix? Once again, interview preparation is important and your CV is a great starting place. Rehearse out loud answers to possible questions based on your CV and practice articulating the contribution you personally made. Also clearly define the overall business benefit that came about as a result of the work you did. Plus, if you were the project lead, the manager or head of department, it's perfectly okay to own the body of work as long as you only take credit for the leadership or management strategies rather than the work itself. Great leadership, is exactly that - great leadership. It's actually a given that you didn't necessarily get down in the trenches to personally do everything. 

3. Over interpreting emotional intelligence cues:  Women are said to have higher emotional intelligence (EI) than men. The upside is that 90% of leadership success is attributed to a high EI.  However, the downside is that women can sometimes over interpret these perceived EI cues when feeling pressured - such as in an interview.  I've heard from clients how in interviews perhaps one of the (male) interview panel members sat there unemotionally with arm folded, "allegedly" giving off signals of "not being impressed" - and then of subsequent pressure to perform win this person over.

The fix? Ignore these signals and get on with the job at hand. Don't try to over impress one particular panel member.  Possibly your awareness is heightened due to interview nerves making you hyper sensitive to these "perceived" cues.  They may be real but they may not actually matter. Frequently and ironically, I've had clients describe this situation and "catastrophise" that there is no way they were ever going to get the role, only to be offered the role anyway.

4. Being too intense and serious: I've written about this before but its worth mentioning again that sometimes, as women, we don't understand the "rules of the career advancement game" and the importance of perceived or real confidence. As a result, we run the risk of being so keen to prove our worthiness that we are perceived as too ernest, intense and serious. That's probably okay if your interview panel is the same, but it's highly likely they won't be. And given that people hire people they like - being too intense won't necessarily help.

The fix? Treat the interview with a lighter touch. It doesn't need to be a comedy routine but remember the interview panel are probably trying to work out if they'd like to work in the same office as you. Given that nerves and anxiety are going to magnify your intensity, why not try an Amy Cuddy Power Pose before the interview?  Guaranteed to bring down cortisol and boost other hormones that enhance performance.  

5. Not asking the big questions:  Sometimes women don't ask questions in the interview around salary, bonus structures, salary review periods and career development opportunities - and yet, according to my sources, male candidates are far more likely.  Is it the way women and men are socialised differently with women being more risk averse, less likely to want to rock the boat, or worried about appearing too hard nosed? Unconscious bias is unfortunately still alive and well in instances where men and women judge a woman negatively if she negotiates too hard according to multiple sources including Sheryl Sandberg of "Lean In" fame and Geena Davis for McKinsey (February 2015).

The fix?  There is no easy fix for this one because the sting in the tail can be considerable. However, simply knowing that males are far more likely to ask this information straight up front is actually helpful. When liaising with your recruiter ask their recommendation in advance. They will have already taken a brief from the client so will be far better placed to gauge the clients appetite for straight talking. Most importantly remember the interview is a two way street. This is not the high school play ground when if a boy said he liked you, ergo you must like him back!  This is actually your chance to find out about the organisation and the people you will be working with, equally as it is their opportunity to find out about you. Why not try asking those questions out loud with a trusted friend or mentor? 

Finally, to leave you with two reminders from inspirational women of the importance of you tackling big and important work, and some motivation to help you get there.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?”
— Marianne Williamson
“You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt

Call or email to find out more about either the "Level Up" mentoring pack. Developing clear communication skills is an integral part of the process.

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