If you’re looking for a new job (or are among the 5.7 percent of American women trying to climb out of unemployment), you’ve probably heard horror stories about how applying for jobs in male-dominated fields or acting too aggressive during the hiring process can nix your chances of landing a position. But new research from Michigan State University revealed something surprising — women looking to get hired might want to play up their masculine traits (or hide their gender altogether) during the job hunt.
The lab experiment, whose results appear in Psychology of Women Quarterly, pitted 674 women and men against one another for a hypothetical job hunt in an engineering field. Turns out that women who described themselves as having “masculine” traits (independence, assertiveness and a focus on achievement) were evaluated favorably more often than those with “feminine” traits (nurturing, warm and supportive) — and more often than male applicants who did not describe themselves with the same traits.
The study gets even more fascinating when contrasted with two other recent news bites. In one, a researcher in the United Kingdom found that teen girls must play down their intelligence in order to appeal to the opposite sex. In another, a group of researchers studying the effects of sexual harassment on women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields admit they feared publishing their results because of potential backlash faced by female respondents.
If you add up the evidence, things start to get mighty confusing. Should women play dumb until they enter an interview, where they “man up” before silencing themselves again in their field? Do teenage boys who prefer less intelligent girls turn into hiring managers who want to bring people just like them on board? Does “manning up” extend to complaining about unfair treatment in the workplace? Why has the term “man up,” which places a spotlight on traditionally “masculine” behaviors (and derides those who are unable to answer its call) become so prevalent in recent years? What’s the best option for a woman looking for work?
The study itself has a bit of sobering advice to share: avoid acknowledging your gender at all during the job hunt. “Women seeking entry into traditionally masculine occupations may want to describe themselves in agentic terms and avoid acknowledging their gender,” says the study. It goes on to say that “…applicants’ decisions concerning how to manage their gender presentation can influence how they are evaluated.”
Whether or not you attempt to hide your gender during the job hunt, at least vet your sources before taking any job-seeking advice. While Anne Marie Ryan, a co-author of the study, admits that the findings (and findings from other research on age discrimination) point the finger at discriminatory screening practices, she also suggest that job hunters equip themselves with a grain of salt before they enter the fray. “There’s a lot of advice out there for applicants to help combat this type of bias,” says Ryan; “…our research is aimed at figuring out what kind of advice is beneficial and what kind of advice may harm you.”