The Interview Questions Women Are More Likely to Be Asked Than Men, and Vice Versa

March 31, 2021

Photo of man and woman sitting at a table during an interview

When companies talk about making the hiring process more inclusive and equitable, they sometimes focus on the early stages, like building a diverse talent pipeline. These efforts are important, but they can quickly be undone if care isn’t taken to make sure all candidates have an equal opportunity to shine during the interview stage. And this isn’t always the case. 

Research conducted by Savanta and reveals that men and women can have significantly different experiences when interviewing. Surveying 2,000 adults in the U.S. about the worst interview questions they’ve ever been asked, the study explored everything from tough questions that candidates dread to downright illegal ones — and uncovered notable differences in the nature of the questions that men and women often field.

While you’d likely never ask some of these questions, the underlying biases and inconsistencies they reveal are worth exploring, as they highlight ways many companies could improve their interviews. Here are some of the most revealing findings from the research. 

Women are more likely to be asked to prove their worth and staying power

On the surface, many of the questions women are more likely to be asked seem fairly standard. Compared to men, they are more frequently quizzed about their greatest strengths (44% vs. 34%), weaknesses (37% vs. 27%), and failures (26% vs. 20%). Women are also more likely to be questioned about why they should be hired (45% vs. 37%), why they want the job (44% vs. 37%), and whether they’re team players (37% vs. 31%).

While these questions aren’t inherently bad (if a little overused), the researchers highlight one thing they have in common: They’re all about proving your worth. The fact that men are less likely to be faced with these questions could indicate that some interviewers automatically view them as more capable. And since you’ve probably already taken the time to confirm that candidates are qualified before they reach the interview stage, there’s no sense wasting a question when you could ask something more insightful.

Interestingly, the survey found that women are only marginally more likely than men to be asked about gaps in their resume (19% vs. 18%). However, they are much more likely to be asked where they see themselves in five years (43% vs. 34%), which the researchers suggest may be a coded way of asking women whether they plan to start a family. Michelle Budig, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, points out that having children can have a very different effect on the career prospects of women than men, so it’s important to be mindful of the potential for bias when crafting your interview questions. 

“Employers read fathers as more stable and committed to their work,’’ Michelle says. “They have a family to provide for, so they’re less likely to be flaky. That is the opposite of how parenthood by women is interpreted by employers. The conventional story is they work less and they’re more distractible when on the job.’’

Men are more likely to be grilled about criminal activity and asked brainteasers

Where women get more basic competency questions, men are more frequently interrogated about criminal activity. Some 31% of men surveyed say they’ve been asked questions like “Have you ever been arrested?” and “Have you ever been questioned or detained by the police?” compared to just 21% of women. Men are also more frequently quizzed about drug use (27% vs. 21%) and asked to gauge how honest they are (22% vs. 14%) — a question that, surely, any competent liar could easily nail. 

Depending on which part of the U.S. a respondent lives, questions like this may not be illegal, but some regions do limit the use of arrest records and criminal history in making employment decisions. Asking such questions may also cause companies to miss out on capable candidates who’ve turned their life around.

But the dodgy questions don’t end there. One in five men (22%) say they’ve been asked questions relating to their religious beliefs — like what holidays they observe and whether their religious practices will affect their work — and 13% of women say the same. Men were also more likely to be asked about sexual orientation, age, disabilities, and political beliefs, none of which are appropriate in an interview setting. Since the survey concerned the worst questions candidates have ever been asked, these may not have been asked recently, but it never hurts to check that your interviewers know what not to ask, especially when it comes to illegal or insensitive questions.

On the sillier side, men also get asked a lot more brainteasers than women (23% vs. 11%), from “How many lightbulbs are there in this building?” to “How many gas stations are there in America?” Google, the company that was once heralded for asking questions like this, ditched them years ago because they were “a complete waste of time” — so if you’re still using brainteasers, it might be time to retire them.

To improve interviews, focus on consistency, fairness, and empathy

To ensure every candidate your company interviews has a fair and positive experience, it helps to use a structured interview format. Prepare questions for each interviewer ahead of time, ask more or less the same questions to every person interviewing for the role, and consider sending candidates ahead of time a list of topics you’ll cover or even questions you’ll ask. This not only reduces the chance that interviewers will go off on irrelevant tangents that introduce unconscious bias, but also makes it easier to compare candidates more fairly. 

Finally, make sure that empathy is a defining feature of your interview process. Whenever you develop a new interview question, take a moment to ask yourself, “How would I feel if I was asked this?” — then run it by coworkers from various underrepresented groups. Obviously, a question like “Are you gay?” is never acceptable. But you may be surprised to learn how other, seemingly innocent questions — “How tall are you?” or “What clubs do you belong to?” — can make some candidates uncomfortable or put them at a disadvantage. Gathering feedback after the interview can also help you continuously evaluate your process to confirm the questions you’re asking are helping, not hurting.

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