Getting Hired in STEM: Recommendations for Women

What do I wear to an interview? Should I avoid coming off as too feminine?  

Is it appropriate to mention concerns about coordinating with my partner’s career or my children during the application process?  

How might I tell whether an institution is inclusive and supportive of women? 

Finding a job is tough no matter who you are, but women in STEM fields have their own set of concerns. Research shows that an applicant’s expressions of her gender identity, even subtle ones, can have a significant effect on her prospects when looking to get hired. Gender bias in hiring is a reality, so GWIS sought answers to the practical questions of what works in the application process, what doesn’t, and how to identify jobs in supportive environments.

In our December networking hour, GWIS hosted two researchers from the Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) who study implicit bias in academic hiring and run workshops to educate faculty members about it. As Researcher and Director of Curriculum Development and Implementation, Eve Fine has advised those on the other side of the interview table in workshops such as Searching for Excellence and Diversity: A Workshop for Search Committees and Assessing and Enhancing Department Climate: A Workshop for Department Chairs. Jennifer Sheridan is Executive and Research Director, overseeing these workshops as well as WISELI’s Study of Faculty Worklife climate surveys. Jennifer and Eve shared insights from their research and other work that can inform women in STEM throughout the hiring process, from identifying supportive institutions, to putting together application materials, to going on the interview. Here’s what you need to know.

Application Materials 

Jennifer referenced studies indicating that the inclusion of more personal information in resumes and cover letters, such as having kids or partner/dual career concerns, are the biggest triggers for department hirers. The takeaway for female job-seekers: don’t highlight your gender identity in application materials. For men, mentioning having children is in fact an advantage (it demonstrates competency as a provider), but for women it’s a disadvantage (it shows a potential lack of dedication).

That doesn’t just apply to materials the applicant is personally submitting. It’s easy for personal information or a personal tone—one that is unhelpful for getting hired—to enter letters of recommendation (e.g., “she’s such a sweetheart in the lab”). To prevent this from happening, Eve and Jennifer suggested that applicants provide recommendation writers a list of accomplishments or traits to highlight. This way, letter writers can focus on the applicant’s competencies without falling into writing in a way that comes off as as mushy.

Yet although it is recommended to de-emphasize gender identity with regard to family, it can be turnoff for a hiring committee if a female to comes off as having only male-associated characteristics. Hiring managers are more at ease when they are assured that a female applicant possesses common female qualities, especially communal skills like peer mentoring. Like it or not, emphasizing those qualities alongside one’s competency makes the applicant more desirable.

The Interview 

First, preparing for questions: though an applicant can take action to avoid getting too personal in application materials, questions about having children, being part of dual career couple, or other lifestyle choices could still come up in the interview. The recommendation of avoiding discussing these topics still holds during the interview, so practicing responding to—or rather, redirecting—questions like this is key for avoiding potentially awkward situations. Redirecting a response could take to form of, “If you’re asking if I’m dedicated to the job, I can assure you …”. Responding to inappropriate questions or comments with light humor (e.g., “I might not look like your image of a typical scientist, but …”) is another helpful strategy, but this requires practice as well: when one is unprepared, it’s not so easy to be humorous. Jennifer recommended this recent Chronicle of Higher Education article that discusses responding to inappropriate questions. Aside from preparing responses to too-personal questions, WISELI also recommended practicing responding to other questions like, “Do you have any questions?”

Next, getting ready the day of the interview: research would recommend that female applicants avoid looking too feminine; for example, do not wear perfume. On the other hand, presenting a confident face is also very important, so if wearing a dress makes you more confident, then wear a dress—but one that is more tailored than flowery/feminine might be recommended.

Then, ensure the day itself goes smoothly: before the interview, think about what you’ll need to do well, and don’t hesitate to ask for it. As we learned from GWIS’s Ask For It workshop last Spring, women often don’t ask for things such as these interview day benefits and conveniences. Ask for space and time to compose yourself before the talk if you think it would help. Ask for a meeting with grad students. Specify dietary needs, etc.—anything that would help you to perform at your best.

Finally, wait until you have an offer in hand before discussing dual career issues with a potential employer! Jennifer and Eve could not emphasize this enough.

For more information about strategies that can reduce gender bias in hiring, see this Academic Medicine article co-authored by WISELI Co-Director Molly Carnes.

Identifying Supportive Institutions 

When on the job market, how might one identify an institution supportive of women? Some institutions host organizations like WISELI that inform staff and faculty about gender bias in hiring to foster a diverse and supportive environment. The NSF Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Fields (ADVANCE) initiative grants Institutional Transformation Awards to institutions that “have developed an understanding of the steps needed to create a more equitable environment for women faculty”. ADVANCE awardee lists are publicly available. Eve pointed out that recruiters who put ads in the women’s caucuses of scientific journals would be likely to be supportive. And for those looking to manage careers along with their other half, the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC) has a dual career search option.

Many thanks to Eve and Jennifer for sharing these findings and practical advice! Getting  women in the door is a first step to helping women make STEM fields thrive.


ADVANCE: Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Fields [Pamphlet]. National Science Foundation. http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2009/nsf0941/nsf0941.pdf